Feb. 25, 2010
By Brian Ormiston
Orlando, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - UCF faced a huge early-season test Wednesday when it traveled to Gainesville to face No. 5 Florida. Both teams entered with identical 3-0 records with the Knights sweeping Savannah State and the Gators getting by USF in three-straight. And even though it was UF who survived, 7-6, UCF demonstrated during the contest that this 2010 squad may certainly be ready to make a statement.
Head coach Terry Rooney always preaches to his team that winning the late innings is vital, and the Knights did just that vs. the Gators. UCF witnessed UF starter Hudson Randall pitch a terrific 5.0 innings in his start, but after he reached his pitch count, the Knights went to work on the bullpen.
In the seventh inning and trailing 7-0, UCF quickly got runners at the corners with nobody out on singles from Chris Duffy and Austin Johnston. But Nick Maronde earned the next two outs and appeared to be set to escape the jam.
That didn't happen. These Knights kept at it, and eventually Ronnie Richardson drove in the first run on an infield single and fellow freshman Darnell Sweeney brought in one more on a base hit of his own. Shane Brown then fell behind 0-2 but just like his teammates in front of him, collected one more two-out RBI with a single to center.
Still, the Black and Gold remained behind by four runs with just two innings to play. And add the fact that it was facing a top-five team, and that would be as close as most programs would get.
Yet Rooney's preseason statement that his team has one of the best offenses in the country continued to be proven true in the fourth game of the year. With Greg Larson on the hill, Jonathan Griffin
opened the eighth with a lucky break, placing a soft single in between short and third for the infield hit. That brought up one of UCF's all-time home run leaders. And Chris Duffy
did not disappoint, blasting a 2-0 pitch over the right-field wall.
Chris Taladay would continue the frame with a one-out hit and after a sacrifice from Anthony Caronia in his first UCF plate appearance, Richardson delivered again with a hard double into right and touched third on a fielding error. But 90 feet was the distance between UCF and a tie ballgame, and Florida kept Richardson stranded at third in what would be UCF's last scoring chance of the game.
Although that distance summed up how close this game became, UCF has certainly grown compared to its last trip to Gainesville. For one, UCF outhit Florida, 15-12, as it now has posted at least 11 hits in every game this season. Last year, the Knights had just 17 hits in two games combined against the Gators. And on UF's field, the Black and Gold lost 16-3 in 2009, while the Gators held a 5-1 lead in Orlando and did not have to withstand a powerful rally like Wednesday night.
So does one offseason really have a drastic effect on improvements like this? It may be difficult to compare weekday games, especially with so many quality teams in the Sunshine State that almost anybody can win on any given weeknight. But the reality is this: Rooney and his coaching staff are already getting a lot out of their newcomers.
Four freshmen were in the batting order at UF, a tall order for the youngest members of the team to take on a dynamic pitching staff. And they persevered, as Richardson, Sweeney, Johnston and Taladay all notched clutch hits, with Richardson leading the way with three hits in all. Griffin, meanwhile, has taken over first base after transferring in to UCF and posted two hits, while Derek Luciano looked sharp during Opening Weekend but was forced to the bench Wednesday due to an injury.
And what was lost in the offense's performance Wednesday was relievers Bryan Brown and Chase Bradford. Not a freshman anymore, Brown stepped up and kept UCF in the game with 2.0 scoreless innings of relief in the most crucial part of the night. He did get into a jam in the eighth, putting two aboard with one out, but Bradford, a transfer out of Southern Nevada, filled in nicely from the pen, needing just two pitches total to record out No. 2 on a ball back to the mound and the third out on a week fly ball to left.
Bradford is one of several new faces on the pitching staff. Knights fans watched freshman Joe Rogers from Winter Haven close out two games last weekend in impressive fashion, while the starting rotation is composed of all junior college transfers in Owen Dew, Johnny Sedlock and Nick Cicio. And with Alex Besaw on the mend, his eventually entrance into the staff will be a major boost.
Speaking of the training room, returning players in DH/1B/RHP D.J. Hicks and IF Stephen Branca remain sidelined. Both have proven to be quite instrumental in the lineup and if they get healthy UCF may be very deep as it starts to work its way to the Conference USA season.
Hicks and Branca are anxious to join the offense that is being led by three players who are poised to take over C-USA, and maybe even the nation. Beau Taylor made a name for himself last year by being named a Freshman All-American, and immediately picked up where he left off by being the C-USA Hitter of the Week last week. He is now hitting .588 after connected for two more hits Wednesday.
Shane Brown has been one of the most consistent hitters the last two seasons, and received plenty of attention at the end of 2009 by being voted onto the All-C-USA Second Team as well as being selected by the New York Yankees in the MLB Draft.
And Duffy is showing lots of patience at the plate so far. One of the strongest guys on the team, Duffy has been working closely with hitting coach Cliff Godwin and something seemed to click during the Knights' series at Memphis in 2009. The senior was streaky at the plate before going 3-for-6 with five RBI in game two and then 2-for-4 with the game-tying two-out, two-run homer in an amazing come-from-behind win in the finale with the Tigers.
Now in 2010, Duffy is already halfway to his home run total from his junior campaign, putting three over the wall as a senior in four games. That has helped him storm out to a .600 average at the dish.
The Knights may be disappointed after coming up just short at Florida, but with 52 games remaining in the regular season, there are already plenty of signs that indicate how far this team has come since the end of 2009.
Season tickets for the 2010 campaign are currently on sale, and reserved bleacher seats are only $150. Faculty/staff, youth and senior season tickets are $99. To purchase tickets, call 407-823-1000 or visit UCFAthletics.com.
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