ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Long after the raucous crowd of 2,131 mostly disappointed fans had vacated the UCF baseball complex, standouts Ronnie Richardson and Travis Shreve stayed behind in the dugout, slump-shouldered and thinking about what could have been for the Knights.
A clutch team all season that had routinely come through in big moments, UCF left one runner after another in scoring position on Saturday. The No. 13 Knights were unable to rally after falling into an early hole and had to look on as No. 4 Rice celebrated a 5-2 victory and Conference USA's regular-season championship.
UCF (41-14 overall and 16-8 in C-USA play) was hoping to capture its first C-USA crown and its first conference baseball title of any kind since 2005. But after leaving 12 runners on base and going just one for 13 with runners in scoring position, the Knights frustratingly settled for runner-up status and the No. 2 seed in next week's C-USA tournament.
"All you can do is square the ball up, but you can't control where it goes,'' said UCF junior D.J. Hicks, who had two hits and two RBI. ``Today, we just hit the ball right at people. That's baseball.''
The Knights will face UAB at noon EDT Thursday in the first of their three games in the C-USA Tournament in Pearl, Miss. The tourney features two four-team pods, and each team plays all of the other teams in its pod. UCF will play East Carolina at 4 p.m. Friday and Tulane at noon Saturday.
UCF won two of three against UAB in Orlando in early April. The Knights swept Tulane and took two of three from East Carolina. The team with the best record from UCF's pod will advance to the championship game at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 27, to face the team with the best record from the other pod.
UCF touted the final game of the regular season as ``Championship Saturday'' because the winner of the game would win the regular-season title after the Knights and Owls split the first two games of the series. The fan base responded to the magnitude of the moment, making noise throughout and attempting to will the Knights to a win. The three-game series attracted 6,601 fans, the most in school history.
"I'm from right down the road in Winter Springs, and it was never like this (with the crowd) four or five years ago,'' said UCF reliever Bryan Brown, who threw 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball to keep the Knights close. ``And to see UCF grow is amazing. We're going to be up there soon. I'm going to be proud to be a Knight as an alum next year, and years after that when I have little kids it's going to be special coming back when the stands are always full and the crowd is always into it.''
UCF Vice President and Director of Athletics Todd Stansbury marveled at the noise and intensity of the crowd and vowed that UCF's baseball team would be better for having played in such an electric environment.
"That's a Super Regional-type of atmosphere. With where our program is right now, we couldn't have gotten a better situation that we had this weekend,'' Stansbury said. ``Our kids getting to play in front of a crowd with that kind of emotion and intensity was great, and it will help us. We still have a lot of baseball left to play.''
UCF got the potential tying run to the plate in the ninth inning in the form of Hicks, the lefty slugger with 68 RBI. Facing Rice closer Tyler Duffey, who struck out his first nine batters in the series, Hicks drove a ball to deep left field, but it fell well short of being a tying home run.
"That situation is what you dream about. I actually thought about it (Friday) night,'' Hicks said. ``As a power hitter that's what you want. I couldn't hit a walk-off, but I could have at least tied it. I put a good swing on it, but I was a little off.''
The Knights had nine hits, but struggled in key moments. UCF entered the Rice series hitting .309 with runners on base, .318 with runners in scoring position and .304 with two outs, but couldn't convert on Saturday against three Owls: starter John Simms (5-0) and closers J.T. Chargois and Duffey.
"As far as situational hitting, I think we had opportunities for a lot of two-out RBIs, and we didn't do it. That's the way you win close games, getting two-out RBIs,'' Rooney said. ``We got them earlier in the week with some big RBIs. Today, in six of nine innings we had a man on second base and a chance to get a run and we didn't do it.''
Richardson and Shreve had reason to remain in the dugout long after Saturday's conclusion and ponder what could have been. Richardson, UCF's most clutch player all season, grounded out with two runners on in the fourth inning and lined out to end the sixth with two more runners on base.
Unquestionably, UCF's star of the day was Brown, who relieved starter Brian Adkins (3-5) early in the second inning. He scattered six hits and struck out three batters, and his 6 2/3 innings qualified for the longest outing of his career. When he left the game with one out in the ninth inning, the senior received a standing ovation from the fans and a hearty greeting from his teammates.
"I've never had anything like that, and I don't think I ever will again,'' Brown said. ``So it was definitely something special that I won't ever forget the rest of my life.''
Each team scored in the first - Rice by stringing together three singles, while UCF got a sacrifice fly out of Hicks.
Adkins, a mainstay of the UCF pitching staff for three seasons, couldn't get out of the second inning after Rice touched him up for four hits and two more runs to push the score to 3-1. Brown relieved Adkins in the second inning with runners on first and second and induced a double-play grounder to get out of the jam and keep the score 3-1.
Bad luck played a role in ending a couple of UCF rallies in the second and third innings. The Knights loaded the bases when Richardson was hit for the 30th time of the season and the 60th time in his career, but Sweeney was jammed on a pitch and popped up. And in third, Chris Taladay singled and reached second on an error. But Hicks' batted ball hit off Taladay's foot, taking a runner out of scoring position.
The Knights left nine runners on base through the first six innings. UCF had at least two runners on base in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings, but couldn't get the big two-out hit. And during one stretch of the game, the Knights had a runner in scoring position in seven straight innings but netted just one run.
Rooney said the frustration from Saturday will burn with his team in the coming days. And he predicted that beating Rice on Friday and pushing the No. 5 Owls to the limit on the final weekend of the regular season will boost the Knights in the postseason.
"The message I told the kids was this: As disappointed as they are - and I get it because they tried their hearts out - we will be a better team for playing this series and in this environment,'' Rooney said. ``We'll be better if we understand that we have to get better. Rice is the No. 5 team in the country, and we're in the top 15. But at the end of the day we want to be one of the eight teams playing in Omaha. For us to be one of those eight teams, we just have to play a little bit better in a lot of areas.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.