May 31, 2011
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By John Denton
ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - For the better part of three years, the phrases ``On the Road to Omaha'' and ``1,430'' have been mantras that have driven and motivated UCF's baseball team. The ``1,430'' indicated the distance in miles between Orlando and the College World Series, and it represented a team willing to dream big about its vast potential.
Following Monday's announcement of the NCAA Tournament pairings, which included UCF for the first time in seven years, sayings such as ``On the Road to Omaha'' and ``1,430'' are no longer just dreams and aspirations. Finally, they are realities.
``We've talked so much about the road to Omaha and 1,430 and we haven't shied away from it one bit. Well, guess what, the time is now for those things,'' said UCF manager Terry Rooney, the man charged with changing the culture around the Knights baseball program. ``All of that stuff is no longer just phrases; it's a reality and it's going to start on Friday. We've had continued progress for a couple of years and getting our names called for a NCAA Regional is a good first step for us.''
UCF took a huge step when it was awarded an at-large bid and a second seed for the Tallahassee Regional of the NCAA Tournament. The second-seeded Knights (38-21) open NCAA play against No. 3 Alabama on Friday at noon at Dick Howser Stadium. Top-seeded Florida State plays fourth-seeded Bethune-Cookman at 6 p.m. on Friday in the other side of the bracket.
UCF goes in quite familiar with its surroundings and its foes. The Knights just played in Tallahassee three weeks ago, winning one of three games against the Seminoles. UCF defeated Alabama 12-4 back on Feb. 27 in Mobile, Ala., and it topped Bethune-Cookman 8-1 and 13-0 in two meetings earlier in the season.
And UCF's power was shown throughout the season as the Knights defeated eight nationally-ranked teams, went 12-10 against teams that qualified for the NCAA Tournament and 5-4 against three of the top eight seeds in the tourney. So they head to Tallahassee obviously with loads of confidence.
``When we were in Tallahassee a couple of weeks ago it was one of the best atmospheres in the nation, but there will be way more people there now for this tournament,'' UCF junior catcher Beau Taylor said. ``It proves we can play with anybody in the country. We know that we're one of the top teams in the nation too. We know we can reach that high level of play this weekend.''
For weeks, Rooney has been preaching to his Knights about the joy and sense of accomplishment that would come when the team saw its name flash onto the ESPN television screens as one of the 64 teams in the NCAA Tournament. With a Top 20 RPI and all of those wins against ranked teams in hand, UCF was a lock to get into the NCAA field, but still there was suspense surrounding the announcement. And when the moment finally came on Monday afternoon a loud roar was released by the team when it saw where it was headed for tournament play.
``It was one of the best feelings we have had since I have been here,'' said sophomore center fielder Ronnie Richardson. ``We haven't been a part of the NCAAs for the last seven years and we haven't been there since joining Conference USA. So this means a lot to us because we have worked so hard for this.''
Rooney took the head coaching job at UCF three years ago with the sole purpose of helping the Knights return to national prominence in baseball. He put together consecutive Top 20 recruiting classes, and that talent showed on the field this season as the Knights had their highest finish ever in Conference USA. The league put Rice, East Carolina, Southern Miss and UCF into the tournament, and UCF knows that by finishing in the top half of an elite conference such as C-USA that it will be prepared heading into the tournament.
But Monday's celebration was about the sense of accomplishment of getting UCF back in the NCAAs. Rooney has boldly talked of winning conference and national championships at UCF. He never misses an opportunity to stress the need for Jay Bergman Field to be expanded so that the Knights can host more big series and possibly a NCAA Regional someday. And he's never shied away from the expectations to win big, having the mentions of Omaha and ``1,430'' plastered on the dugout, dressing room and even spray-painted on the ground where players get on the bus for roadtrips.
``I'm so proud for the guys and I'm excited for them, excited for the program and the coaching staff. It's an exciting time and well deserved,'' Rooney said. ``Going into the year, this is a team that we felt had an opportunity to be one of the top 25 teams in the entire country. We definitely are and we've proven that all season.''
Rooney said the familiarity with having already played Alabama, FSU and Bethune-Cookman should help calm the nerves of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time for the players. Rooney scheduled the FSU series late in the season so that the Knights could experience the feel of playing in a NCAA-like environment. He got the Knights into the South Alabama Classic earlier in the season and that allowed them to beat the Crimson Tide 12-4.
``I think the familiarity helps, no doubt about it,'' Rooney said. ``We scheduled that series with Florida State with the hopes that we'd put ourselves in position to get to a regional and provide an atmosphere that our guys would get used to. When we played up there it was a regional atmosphere. So it all plays out great for us. We've played on that field and we've seen their best pitching, so it should be an advantage for us.''
As well as UCF played early in the season, the Knights still needed a strong closing kick to ensure that their special season ended in the NCAA Tournament. And the Knights delivered by winning seven of the last eight regular season games. UCF then defeated Memphis and UAB in the C-USA Tournament before losing to national powerhouse Rice in the the final game of pool play. So the Knights head into the NCAAs knowing that the momentum of playing their best baseball of the season is on their side.
They truly are now ``On the Road to Omaha,'' starting in Tallahassee on Friday. UCF feels it has the team to win the regional, shave some of the miles off that ``1,430'' mantra between Orlando and Omaha and do some serious damage in the tournament.
``To know that we're only five wins away from Omaha is amazing, but this is just the beginning for us here now,'' Richardson said. ``We've got to go into Tallahassee and take care of business. Baseball is weird in that any team can be beaten on any day, so really it's about just going and playing our game now and see how far it takes us.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.