It's a Conference USA title showdown as No. 13 UCF and No. 4 Rice do battle at Jay Bergman Field beginning Thursday for a series which will determine the regular season championship.
Heading into the final three games, both ballclubs are deadlocked in a first-place tie with identical 15-6 records. The scenario is simple: Win the series, win the league and lock up the No. 1 seed in next week's conference tournament.
"It's exciting," UCF coach Terry Rooney said. "We have an opportunity to play for a championship. I'm excited for the kids, first and foremost. They deserve it. Look at the beginning of the year, Rice and UCF were picked 1 and 2 (in the preseason coaches poll) and here we are. You can't ask for anything more... It's going to be an exciting weekend."
For what's at-stake, the series is being called the biggest in UCF baseball history. It's unchartered territory for the Knights, who have never come close to winning a championship in their previous six years in C-USA.
"When we started the year, this is what the expectations were," Rooney said. "You don't hope you're going to be in a championship. You have to have the mindset that you know you're going to play for a championship. It doesn't always happen, but these kids believed they would be playing for a championship this year."
On the other end, playing for championships - and winning them - is what Rice does. Dating back to their final season in the Southwestern Conference in 1996, the Owls have won a conference championship - regular season or tournament - for 16 consecutive years. Since joining C-USA with UCF in 2006, Rice has won the regular season title every season with the exception of 2009 when East Carolina took the crown. However, Rice won that year's league tournament.
"Rice obviously has been the class of this league," Rooney said. "They're an outstanding baseball program. Coach (Wayne) Graham is one of the best baseball coaches in the country. They play the game right. That's what they do. They're fundamentally sound. They don't beat themselves. They never have. They're just a great team."
As a team, Rice leads C-USA in pitching with a 2.90 ERA (UCF is third at 3.08) and ranks fourth batting .286 (UCF is second at .298).
Offensively, second baseman Christian Stringer leads the team batting .357 overall and .410 in C-USA games.
Opening night starter Matthew Reckling is holding opposing teams to a .172 batting average, a mark that is easily the best in C-USA, to go along with a 2.45 ERA. Austin Kubitza, who starts on Friday, has a 3.22 ERA and limits batters to a .226 average.
J.T. Chargois is one of the most versatile players in college baseball. He starts at first base where he's third on the team with a .321 batting average and also serves as the team's closer. He routinely touches 97 MPH on his fastball to go along with a nasty curveball making him one of the nation's top MLB Draft prospects.
"I think when you look at them on paper, certainly they're well-balanced, but they've always had great pitching," Rooney said. "You look at where they are this year and I think that holds true again. They've got a collection of outstanding arms. It's certainly going to be a challenge. You love playing Rice because they're going to play the game right. It's going to be a fundamentally-sound team that plays very, very hard."
Rooney always talks about "Championship Sunday." From here on out, it's "Championship Weekend."
"When we were at Marshall we had a team dinner on Thursday night and we talked about a few things," Rooney said. "I explained the big picture to them. I said, 'You guys need to understand that if we take care of business at Marshall that once we get to Rice you're playing for a championship every single weekend. Put that into perspective. That's pretty awesome. You're going to play for a regular season championship and then obviously a conference tournament championship in Mississippi. Hopefully we're fortunate enough to receive a NCAA bid, and you're playing for a championship every weekend after that.'"
Bats coming around
Prior to the Marshall series, Rooney said the No. 1 objective was increased production from the offense. A lack of hitting had been one of the reasons UCF had lost two of three to Memphis and then dropped a game a week later to Presbyterian.
Rooney feels they turned the corner after Sunday's 13-6 win at Marshall.
"I thought Sunday at Marshall was one of our best, if not the best, offensive game that we've had this entire year," Rooney said. "Obviously, I hope that continues. I thought we had some great at-bats early against Stetson. Obviously they don't count, but I thought we took some quality at-bats.
"That was the No. 1 thing. At the end of the day, to win championships and to move on in the postseason of college baseball, you have to put it all together and play your best baseball. When you look at our team, I feel like our pitching has been pretty consistent throughout the entire year. We did not pitch well at Marshall. We didn't. We didn't command the strike zone as well as we needed to. We've got to get back on track with that. But our offense, as I said, was really the No. 1 area that we needed to make sure we got going and we got it going on Sunday."
Breen on the mend
UCF starting catcher Ryan Breen is still nursing his bruised wrist, but Rooney anticipates he'll be able to start against Rice. He was injured last Friday when a foul ball deflected off his wrist.
"I think Breen will be ready to go on Thursday," Rooney said. "It's still technically day-to-day. Obviously he was not playing (Tuesday vs. Stetson). We could have used him in an emergency situation. But it is our hope that Ryan will be ready to go on Thursday. It's not guaranteed, but he's made good progress. There's nothing broken, just a really bad bruse and there's some swelling. If he is ready and cleared medically then he's going to go."
Looking for big crowds
For a series billed as the biggest in school history, there's hope the attendance will back it up. Rooney is encouraging everyone who considers themselves a UCF fan to come out to the ballpark for these three huge games.
"We've talked about UCF being Orlando's baseball team," Rooney said. "It's certainly our hope that we're going to have some packed crowds here this weekend. No. 1, it's all about the kids and the kids deserve it. That's first and foremost. They've put themselves in position to win a championship, so obviously the more fans we can have it's going to help our cause.
"The one thing I hope is there's a lot of new faces out there. That's what I hope. Not just people that are fans of baseball, I want people that are fans of UCF. If you're a season ticket holder in football, come out to a game. If you're a season ticket holder in basketball, come to a game. If you're a fan of UCF and UCF Athletics, come and see these kids. This is a group of kids that deserve it. They've done a great job."
Thursday: UCF LHP Chris Matulis (6-0, 2.73 ERA) vs. Rice RHP Matthew Reckling (8-1, 2.45 ERA)
Friday: UCF RHP Ben Lively (8-1, 2.97 ERA) vs. Rice RHP Austin Kubitza (5-3, 3.22 ERA)
Saturday: TBD vs. TBD