For a moment last weekend, it seemed like the Knights were poised to extend their 2012 season.
For a moment, Omaha, Neb., didn’t seem quite so far away.
But then UCF ran into the unexpected buzzsaw that was the Stony Brook Seawolves, lost consecutive games and saw its season end.
That was a week ago on Monday, and since then there has been some time to allow the initial impressions of the Knights’ defeat to settle. A week later, the 2012 season is easier to put into perspective.
Whatever your individual expectations for UCF baseball in 2012, it’s hard to deny the Knights made progress in head coach Terry Rooney’s fourth year.
UCF remained ranked from beginning to finish of the 2012 season. The Knights were dominant in weekend series and finished a game behind Rice for the regular-season Conference USA championship. UCF opened up the upper deck along the first-base side and saw improved crowds throughout the season as interest grew in a program that Rooney is trying to pitch as “Orlando’s baseball team.”
The Knights had stretches where they played some fantastic baseball in 2012, ranking as high as No. 7 in the country at one point, the recognition the program received in the national polls and being a No. 2 seed in their regional certainly showed some progress for the program.
Rooney will be the first to tell you that hitting for power is one of the cornerstones of his program. But Rooney, who came to the program after being a pitching coach for LSU, has endured some struggles with his pitching staff over his tenure at UCF.
This past season showed some improvements, specifically with some strength coming in the areas of relief pitching. Roman Madrid performed well as a set-up man, and Joe Rogers is one of the best closers in the country and cemented his status as UCF’s best closer when he broke the program’s career saves record.
The starting rotation, anchored by Ben Lively, had its moments, too. Consistency, however, was a problem. Specifically, the staff showed a knack for giving up the big inning in some key situations, notably late in the season.
Now, the team will lose Rogers and Madrid and a few other members of the staff, but there are still some other important pieces for the staff to build around, including Lively and Eric Skoglund. Moreover, it’s safe to expect Rooney to bring in a few talented prospects in his next recruiting class. The challenge going forward will be to define rolls for the staff, specifically finding a new set-up man and closer.
With last week’s MLB First-Year Player Draft claiming some important pieces from this year’s team, like D.J. Hicks and Ronnie Richardson, there are going to be some questions about the Knights going forward. Still, there are some talented returning players that Rooney and his staff will have a chance to develop into key pieces for the club going forward.
Rising seniors Chris Taladay, Ryan Breen and Jeramy Matos look to be the core of the lineup next season. Taladay batted .298 with 49 RBIs in 2012, Breen batted .264 with 24 RBIs and Matos hit .281 with five home runs.
Freshmen JoMarcos Woods and James Vasquez saw extended playing time in 2012, with Vasquez hitting .276 in 98 at-bats and Woods stealing seven bases in eight attempts.
Meanwhile, freshman Erik Barber made the most of his 17 at-bats, batting .412, and fellow-freshman Spencer Haynes batted .290 in 31 plate appearances.
Rooney has consistently recruited well for the Knights, and the silver lining to losing cornerstones to the program like Rogers and Hicks is that there are players who are waiting to step up.
Like it or not, 2012 will be the season remembered for UCF baseball not finishing in key spots.
In the last few weeks of the 2012 campaign, the Knights found themselves in two situations where they needed to win one game in two tries — in the final regular-season series against Rice with the championship on the line and in the Coral Gables Regional after winning the first two games of the weekend.
Both times, UCF allowed momentum to escape it, dropping consecutive games with pitching inconsistency being the culprit at times and lack of timely hitting doing the Knights in at other times.
While Rice and Stony Brook certainly were not teams to scoff at, when you consider the elite level Rooney’s program aspires to, the Knights needed to have capitalized after twice putting themselves in position to do something historic.
Disappointments aside, Rooney’s program certainly made a stride in 2012. The question going forward will be how well the program can retool in the offseason and what kind of position it will put itself in for 2013. Despite some questions, Rooney doesn’t blink when it comes to expectations for 2013.
“Get to Omaha,” Rooney said. “That’s the next step.”