CORAL GABLES, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Up 3-0 through the first three innings of Monday night's winner-take-all NCAA Regional championship game, all things seemed possible for UCF - even the school's first regional title.
But when Stony Brook's bats finally awoke in the middle innings, UCF's dreams of winning a region title and advancing to a Super Regional collapsed under an avalanche of Seawolves' RBI hits.
Slugger D.J. Hicks and starting pitcher Brian Adkins staked UCF to an early lead, but the positive vibes soon faded when Stony Brook delivered nine runs in the fourth, fifth and sixth innings to defeat the Knights 10-6 in the Coral Gables NCAA Regional championship.
"That (3-0) start is what we wanted and what we came out to do. It felt good, but we just couldn't stay out of the big inning," Hicks said. ``We couldn't help our pitchers out and they took advantage of our mistakes."
The finish was a frustrating one for the Knights (45-17), who lost on Sunday and Monday after winning the first two games of the regional. The second-seeded Knights beat fourth-seeded Stony Brook (50-12) 9-8 on Saturday, but couldn't match the Seawolves' powerful lineup hit for hit over the final two days.
UCF's coaches and players had talked for days about the team being on a mission, but they couldn't deliver on the stated goal of winning a regional championship. Several of the Knights players bypassed the MLB Draft and returned this season with the stated goal of getting the Knights to a Super Regional and possibly Omaha for the College World Series. But those dreams will have to wait at least for another year for the Knights.
``I'd like to congratulate Stony Brook, their entire team and their coaching staff on an outstanding regional and an outstanding game. I am extremely impressed with their ballclub in every facet of the game,'' UCF head coach Terry Rooney said.
``On the same note I'm extremely proud of this group of players at UCF. Unfortunately today was not our day and Stony Brook played better than us,'' Rooney continued. ``I cannot begin to tell you how extremely proud I am of this group of players. What they accomplished the entire course of the season is extremely special. They did some things that our baseball program has not accomplished before. Unfortunately the ultimate goal may not have been there, but they have nothing to hang their heads about. As the coach of this program, I couldn't be prouder of a group of young men and the way that they represent our team and our program.''
Still, the Knights wrapped up arguably the most successful season in school history. UCF spent the entire season in the national rankings and climbed to as high as No. 7 early in the year. The Knights took powerhouse Rice to the final day of the regular season before finishing second in Conference USA - their best result ever in league play.
Several of UCF's core players, namely centerfielder Ronnie Richardson, closer Joe Rogers and Hicks, will likely be selected in the MLB Draft in the coming days. Hicks came into the program four years ago and Rogers and Richardson were a part of the 2009 recruiting class that Rooney feels will go down as one of the most important ones in school history. That group helped the Knights get back to the NCAA Regional last year after a seven-year drought and to the championship game this season.
UCF jumped to a 3-0 lead on Monday when Hicks smashed the first of his two home runs on a 390-foot shot to right field. Hicks, who had three home runs in the regional, was later driven home on a single by Jeramy Matos. And Adkins briefly calmed some of the concerns about UCF's pitching when he shut out Stony Brook over the first three innings of the game.
``It felt great getting off to that start and we had some quality at bats early in the game,'' Rooney said. ``I certainly knew how well Stony Brook was swinging the bats and I knew it was going to take a bunch of runs in order to get the job done. But getting off to that early start gave our guys a confident boost.''
One aspect of the loss that galled Rooney was his team's inability to get key two-out hits. UCF left runners in scoring position in the second, third, fourth and sixth innings.
Things came apart in the fourth inning for the Knights. A hit batter, a double and two walks chased Adkins, and Stony Brook star William Carmona delivered a two-run double to tie the game up at 3. A safety squeeze for an RBI - Maxx Tissenbaum's fourth of the Regional - put Stony Brook ahead and the third hit of the inning gave the Seawolves a 5-3 lead.
Two more runs in the fifth and sixth innings for Stony Brook turned the game into a lopsided affair. Hicks homered a second time in the seventh inning and JoMarcos Woods drilled the first home run of his college career in the eighth to draw UCF within 10-6.
Stony Brook starter Tyler Johnson, who threw 110 pitches in Friday's rout of Miami, improved to 11-1 by going 6 1/3 innings and allowing four runs. He got plenty of run support from a Stony Brook offense that saw eight players with at least one hit.
Rooney awoke a slumping Hicks on Sunday by dropping him from fourth to fifth in the lineup. And after the 6-foot-5 slugger responded with a towering home run and a double on Sunday, Rooney bumped Hicks up to the No. 3 slot on Monday. Once again, Hicks came through in his first at bat, cranking a 390-foot home run over the fence in right field to put UCF up 2-0.
``They are a great offensive team and their pitchers were really good and kept the ball down,'' Hicks said. ``They didn't make mistakes in the field and they played an A-game all weekend.''
Hicks figured prominently in UCF's third run when he walked, moved to send on a wild pitch and scored following hits by Alex Friedrich and Jeramy Matos. Remarkably, Matos saw heat despite being a fastball hitter and he responded by driving the ball between short and first.
Adkins never broke 80 miles per hour in the first three innings, mixing speeds between 66 and 79 miles per hour. He pitched out of jams in both the second and third by locating his curveball and changeups. He got a strikeout on a 70 mile per hour curve to end the second and induced a popup to end the third with runners on first and third.
After the bases were unloaded by the Seawolves in the fourth, Adkins finished with a line of 3 1/3 innings pitched, four hits, four earned runs, five walks and one strikeout on 80 pitches.
``I was able to make some pitches early to get out of some stuff, but I started pitching in backwards counts and eventually it caught up to me,'' Adkins said. ``I had too many walks. I'm a pitcher who gives up some hits, so I can't give up free passes and be successful. It all led to a crooked inning.''
Hicks said that it will take some time for himself and his teammates to get over the disappointment of not attaining the team's ultimate goal of winning a regional title. But he said in time he'll be able to reflect on all of the positives accomplished this season.
``Obviously we fell one game short and we wanted a different outcome, but I'm proud of our guys,'' Hicks said. ``I've got great teammates and this is definitely a tough one for us to take.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.