MLB right now is in the thick of its postseason, but UCF baseball has just started fall practices.
Fall ball began for UCF this month, the equivalent of spring training for college baseball. Players are now back at Jay Bergman Field for the first time since last season, and are excited to be there.
"They're definitely very excited to be out here, and I think it's just a matter of them understanding every day what we're trying to get done, we're trying to get better," said head coach Terry Rooney. "They've done a good job of it."
UCF was 36-23 last season, and named one of the "last four out" of the NCAA tournament by the NCAA selection committee. The team won two games in the American Athletic Conference Tournament that would have given it an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, but lost to Houston in a game that it needed to win to make it into the final.
But now, all that is in the past. The Knights are at "The Berg" five or six days per week to try and get better so they can win a few of the close games that they lost last season, which would have likely been the difference in making the tournament.
One major difference for UCF coming into this season is the number of returning players it has. Last year, UCF had a lot of incoming players, both transfers from junior colleges and freshmen.
This year, it's quite different.
All eight of its starting position players, as well as the designated hitter, are back from last season. On top of that, seven of the eight most-used pitchers are returning. Rooney can see the differences in the way his team practices when comparing last season and this season.
"It shrinks the learning curve, where last year the learning curve was so big because you have so many new players, and you're trying to teach them every aspect of the program and what you want with your expectations and those kinds of things," Rooney said. "Now the majority of guys have a pretty good grasp and understanding of it, so you can focus on a few more areas."
One area that may be focused on by the pitching staff in the fall is giving away less free passes. UCF walked 226 batters in 538.1 innings last year. That's a walk about every 2 1/2 innings, much too often for a team with a lot of very good pitchers.
No matter what Rooney has been working on with his players, the fall is the time to work on it.
"To get better at anything you've got to go backward a little bit to go forward," Rooney said. "I think our guys have been receptive [and] everyone's been very coachable, the new players and the returning players."
But teaching new things isn't the only thing on the to-do list in the fall. First, Rooney and his coaches need to gauge their team's talent.
"The No. 1 goal of the fall is to evaluate and see what we have," Rooney said. "No. 2 is to implement our style of play and philosophies that we want, and No. 3 to teach guys things to get better."
And also, just because UCF is returning so many players doesn't mean that those players are automatically slotted into starting roles. Rooney says every spot is up for someone to step up and grab — the way several of the starters did last fall.
"What they did last year plays a little bit of a role, it plays a role because there's history there, there's experience there," Rooney said. "But a new year is a new year, there's new opportunities and everybody has a clean slate to make a good impression."
All fall baseball practices are open to the public, and the fall season will conclude with the Black and Gold World series, an three-game intrasquad scrimmage for UCF that begins Oct. 26 and wraps up Oct. 29 and Oct. 30.