ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - There are times in the outfield and even when he's in the on-deck circle that JoMarcos Woods' thoughts will drift far away from baseball and to the well-being of family members far, far away.
With Woods having two older brothers actively serving in the military, rarely does a day pass that he doesn't think about two people who had a tremendous influence on his baseball career. C.J. Woods, a former Division II baseball player in West Virginia, is a member of the U.S. Navy and aboard the USS New Orleans. And Jose Rodriguez, a medical technician formerly in Iraq, is currently stationed in Tampa and has had the opportunity to watch his younger brother's rise to stardom at UCF.
Naturally, Friday's Military Appreciation Day at UCF means a little something extra to Woods, a freshman outfielder. Active duty, retired and civilian military personnel will receive free admission to the 6:30 p.m. game on Friday by showing their military ID, and they also will receive one complimentary ticket to the game. Tickets can be picked up on game day starting at 5 p.m. at the UCF baseball complex. Free parking will be available in the baseball lot and in lots E6, E7 and E8 next to Bright House Networks Stadium.
UCF, 34-8 overall owners of its highest national ranking ever at No. 7 (tying 2001), opens a crucial three-game series against the Tigers as the leaders in Conference USA at 12-3. Woods has been a big part of UCF's success, and he's happy to be playing on a night when those who have served in the military will be honored.
"There are times when I'm in the field when I will think about them because I always try to keep them in my thoughts,'' Woods said of his brothers. "Every night I pray that they are safe. C.J. actually messaged me on Facebook the day after my walk-off hit, congratulating me. It feels good that he's following me on the UCF website and checking out my stats. He still gives me encouragement and gives me tips. ... There are a lot of people out there who sacrifice their lives for our country. It lets you know that you shouldn't ever take life for granted.''
No one is taking Woods' impact on the UCF baseball team for granted after he has blossomed into a solid contributor as a true freshman. A year after starring at Orlando's First Academy and not yet 19 years old, Woods is fifth on the team in on-base percentage, is 6-for-6 on stolen base attempts and is the owner of a dramatic walk-off, game-winning hit.
UCF head coach Terry Rooney saw something special in Woods years ago on the recruiting trail, and the speedster has delivered on the college level. Some colleges overlooked Woods - affectionately known by teammates and coaches as JoJo - because of his slight 5-foot-7, 170-pound frame, but Rooney liked him because of his winning intangibles.
"JoJo Woods has always been a gamer. You talk to any youth league coach, any high school coach in Orlando and he's one of the first people they want to talk about,'' Rooney said. ``They ask about him because of his style of play and they know him because he's winner. Everywhere he's ever played - First Academy in high school and the travel teams like the Orlando Scorpions - he's always been that guy for them.''
Woods' fiery intensity and hustling style has won over his teammates in a big way. UCF's cornerstone player, slugger D.J. Hicks, said he could tell almost immediately that Woods would have a big role on the team this season.
"That guy is a special kid. He has such a nice swing and I could see it in the fall that there was something special about the guy,'' said Hicks, who is hitting .333 and leads the team with 10 home runs and 56 RBI. "JoJo works hard, has a lot of energy and there's just a lot of fight in the kid. It's great that he's stepping up for us.''
His biggest moment of stepping up came on April 8 in the ninth inning against UAB. He stroked single into left field to plate the winning run and was immediately mobbed by his teammates.
It was that moment that Woods knew deep in his heart that he could make it on the collegiate level. Admittedly, he struggled through the fall semester in his first few months on campus. Managing his time was initially an issue as was learning to deal with the daily grind of college baseball. His mother, Marta Woods, and brothers encouraged him to keep working hard at his craft and now he is seeing the products of his perseverance.
"Coming in here from high school, there was a lot of time to deal with and I had to learn to keep up with my grades and keep up with baseball. The fall was rough, but it showed what it was like and taught me about time management,'' said Woods, who had dreamed of playing at UCF since he was 12 years old and attended a baseball camp on campus. "The fall was tough with some rough times, but my mom and brothers told me that I've been doing this since I was 5 years old and it was just another game. I came back after winter break and I've been working hard. I settled down and just played baseball and now it's paying off for me.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.