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February 15, 2013

Baseball is back with Opening Knight

UCF might have lost some key contributors from last year's 45-win NCAA Regional team, but expectations remain high as the Knights are set to embark on year five under Terry Rooney.

The seasons begins on Friday - "Opening Knight" - when Siena visits for the first of a three-game series. Free admission is being offered to all fans with first pitch set for 6:30 p.m. The series continues on Saturday (4 p.m.) and Sunday (1 p.m.).

Fans who frequented the ballpark the last few years will see some new faces as lineup regulars Ronnie Richardson, Darnell Sweeney and D.J. Hicks departed to pursue professional baseball opportunities while Alex Friedrich and Travis Shreve wrapped up their careers with graduation.

On the mound, bullpen aces Joe Rogers and Roman Madrid also pursued Major League Baseball dreams.

In all, UCF saw five players turn pro after their junior year. But that's life for any top college baseball program.

"To have a great team you have to have great players," Rooney said. "We had great players in 2012 and we have great players in 2013. A big part of college baseball is when you have great teams, you're going to lose kids to professional baseball. And I want it that way. I want our kids to be able to sign after their junior years. We certainly lost a handful of guys last year and also lost some players to graduation, but that's the nature of college baseball. The better the team you have, the more players you're going to lose. But we have an outstanding nucleus returning."

That nucleus includes starting pitcher Ben Lively, catcher Ryan Breen and third baseman Chris Taladay. Center fielder JoJo Woods and designated hitter Jeramy Matos also return with experience.

Rooney called last year's bullpen combination of Rogers (1.47 ERA, 13 saves) and Madrid (1.00 ERA, 3 saves) the best in college baseball, so the task of replacing the duo was one of the biggest question marks as they went through the fall and preseason.

At least at the beginning of the season, he's looking at Chris Matulis in a long-relief, setup role. The former LSU transfer started 10 games last season.

"Chris Matulis is a fifth-year guy and one of our most proven, experienced and successful pitchers," Rooney said. "I like for opening weekend having Chris in the back-end of the game. He's got the veteran presence because he's won at the highest level. He knows what it takes."

Newcomer Spencer Davis looks to take over as the Knights' closer.

"He's been closing the last two weeks in our scrimmages," Rooney said. "He went to Texas A&M as a freshman and played at Howard Junior College last year. He was a player who was drafted out of high school. He's really developing and continuing to come on.

"In college baseball, the majority of games are won or lost between the sixth and eighth innings and we've got to be very good there to have a very good team."

Promising left-handed hitter James Vasquez is the new first baseman and Tommy Williams, a strong defender who was drafted out of high school, grabbed hold of shortstop.

As of Tuesday, Rooney had yet to make a decision at second base. Erik Hempe, Austin Johnston and Spencer Haynes have been battling for the spot.

"Who will make the routine plays and who is going to hit," Rooney said. "That combination is what will be the best thing for us."

Whether it's second base or somewhere else, Rooney has said he wants Hempe's bat in the lineup. The California native is a sixth-year senior who sat out all of last season with a knee injury. He posted big hitting numbers (.307, 7 HR, 15 doubles, 29 RBI) as the starting right fielder in 2011.

Erik Barber and Parker Webster, or Hempe, could fill the other outfield spots.

Rooney took over a program in 2009 that was at the bottom of Conference USA and hadn't advanced to a NCAA Regional since 2004. The Knights, a top 25 team in 2012, are now coming off back-to-back postseason appearances.

"First and foremost, the No. 1 goal of this baseball program is to get to the NCAA Tournament," Rooney said. "It's not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to get to Omaha. But it all starts with No. 1 and that's to be in position to get to a NCAA Regional. Because of the past success of these kids who have played here, it's the expectation. It's going to happen. It's the norm now that we go to the NCAA Regionals.

"But just expecting it to happen doesn't ensure that it will. We've got to work one day at a time to get better."



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