Rooney rebuilds with strong signing class
Published: Wednesday, August 29, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, August 29, 2012 16:08
The UCF baseball team was one win away from two different championships in 2012. It fell short in the final game of the regular season against Rice, and then dropped a heart breaker in the NCAA Regionals to the Cinderella of college baseball, Stony Brook.
With the entire summer behind them, the 2013 baseball team and head coach Terry Rooney are ready to begin the rebuilding phase.
“At the end of the day it was a great season. The kids did a great job,” Rooney said. “Was it a tough finish? Absolutely. But those kids have nothing to look down on. They should hold their heads high and look at the bigger picture of what an awesome job they did all season.”
Like most head coaches, Rooney hit the recruiting trails this summer, though it was a different summer from what Rooney has experienced in the past. UCF has had a history of bringing in freshmen who had previously been drafted in the MLB Amateur Draft, but decided to attend college before turning pro.
The Knights lost a couple of recruits this summer, the most notable of them was pitcher Zach Eflin. The San Diego Padres drafted Eflin with the 33rd overall pick in the 2012 draft. The Oviedo native signed a $1.2 million signing bonus with the team, forgoing a college career.
“I knew going into it that [Eflin] was probably going to be a first rounder,” Rooney said. “Zach Eflin is a terrific kid. He got a tremendous amount of money and a tremendous opportunity and deserves everything he got.”
But, with the loss of Eflin comes 10 new Knights who signed with UCF during the summer. Seven freshmen and three transfers join the team, eight of them hailing from around the Sunshine State. Freshman Bo Decker and redshirt sophomore Spencer Davis were both drafted out of high school. Decker was chosen by the New York Yankees in the 39th round of this past draft, while the Tampa Bay Rays made their attempt at Davis in the 35th round in 2010.
“I like the group of pitchers we brought in. It’s a good combination of freshmen and junior college kids,” Rooney said. “I think we’ll have a couple of pitchers who can step up and make an immediate impact on our team."
Those 10 new Knights will have the task of replacing the 10 players who departed last spring. Sixty-five percent of the team’s home runs, 83 percent of the team’s stolen bases, 89 percent of the team’s saves and all of the team’s .300-plus hitters have left the team. Missing players like D.J. Hicks, Darnell Sweeney, Ronnie Richardson and Joe Rogers leave huge gaps in the UCF roster.
“We lost a lot off last year’s team. My whole message this fall is ‘We need to get better,’” Rooney said. “If you’re a returning player, you need to get better. If you’re a newcomer, you need to come in and compete for a job. From a statistic baseball stand point, we lost a lot, but I have no doubt that we’re going to be successful."
While it may seem like a hard task to replace such key pieces, UCF is not the only team worrying about losing great players. Every good college baseball program loses players to the MLB Draft, the great ones know how to replace them with continuity.
Rooney has high expectations for his returning players. Ryan Breen and Chris Taladay are entering their senior years, and have been starters since they were freshmen. Rooney will look to them to lead the team on and off the field.
“When you look at our 2013 program, we have a great core back who have helped us win ball games in the past,” Rooney said. “Not many programs can say they have two returning players who have played virtually every game in four years. Ryan Breen and Chris Taladay’s leadership will be essential to our success.”
One of the biggest storylines of the summer was the play of first baseman James Vasquez in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League. The sophomore hit .418 with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs in 32 games.
Two of the best things for UCF this summer were the returns of outfielder Erik Hempe and pitcher Chris Matulis. Hempe missed the entire 2012 season with a leg injury and hit .307 with seven home runs and scored 34 runs in 2011. Matulis emerged in the second half of 2012, finishing the season with a 3.63 ERA, a flawless 7-0 record and 84 strikeouts.
The 2012 UCF athletics theme of “Finish” is very fitting for the baseball program. It has made great improvements during the past few seasons. Now, in the final season as a member of Conference USA, all it has left to do is finish.