Since joining UCF in 2008, head baseball coach Terry Rooney has created a habit of turning young high school baseball students into Major League Baseball professionals. With his 2014 Coach of the Year award sitting on his belt, Rooney has found his own recipe for success.
Adding to the growing list of accolades and success stories, Rooney has also garnered recognition for four different national rankings in the top 40 recruit classes, being in the top 30 teams in the nation for five years in a row, and the accumulation of 18 different program records.
Rooney’s recruiting strategy and work ethic has led him to develop exceptional teams year after year and, starting this Friday, the Knights will kick off their conference play in the American Athletic Conference.
“It all starts with recruiting,” Rooney said. “It doesn’t matter necessarily what you know unless you have talent. Any winning, successful team and successful program starts with great players. The life line of any college athletic team is you have to be able to recruit.”
With the program’s best recruiting class making its debut in 2010, Rooney’s strategy of focusing on the long-term development of the players has proven to be successful.
“You have to be able to project and evaluate where a guy will be in three to five years,” Rooney said.
The recruiting work done by Rooney has sent 49 pitchers into the MLB Draft, 14 of whom were taken in the first 10 rounds, according to Rooney’s biography on the UCF Athletics website.
Since the program’s birth, UCF has seen 107 players enter the MLB draft, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
“You have to say, ‘Is that guy a projectable pitcher?’” Rooney said. “We’ve been very fortunate that we have had a lot of those guys develop and go to the major leagues.”
Former Knights baseball player Darnell Sweeney, previously coached by Rooney, made his first MLB appearance on the 25-person roster with the Philadelphia Phillies in Miami last August. Sweeney is the first player coached by Rooney to see action in the show.
“The thing about Darnell is that he is a self-made player,” Rooney said. “He was relentless and obsessed with being great. He was a great player because he made himself a great player number one, but number two, he was a great teammate.”
During his time at UCF, Sweeney had 40 doubles, six home runs and 118 RBIs. Off the field, Rooney said he appreciated something other than Sweeney’s skills — his character.
“Darnell is one of the greatest people I have ever coached, not only as a player but as a person,” Rooney said. “He is as good as an ambassador as you can have for the University of Central Florida. He loves UCF, and he’s first class in everything that he does.”
Rooney said he finds his inspiration to continue coaching through the love of the game, but more important, through the effect he has on his players.
“I got into coaching for one reason, which is to impact the lives of young kids,” Rooney said.
The principles taught by Rooney during practices and games transcend into other areas of life.
“I try to teach them the things it takes to be successful: responsibility and accountability,” Rooney said. “When they are 18 and 19, they may not know it, but in five to six years after they graduate, they will realize it.”
Junior catcher Matt Diorio has been at UCF for three years, and said he attributes much of his success to his coach.
“He made me the player I am today,” Diorio said. “I knew nothing about baseball really before I came here. He taught me everything I know, especially with his coaching staff, which does a great job.”
Rooney makes it a specific point to train his players in more ways than hitting in the cages or fielding ground balls.
“He’s done an unbelievable job with teaching us the game of baseball, the right way to play and also teaching us about life, too,” Diorio said. “I’ve learned a lot of stuff. I know that if baseball doesn’t work out for me, then I’ll be successful because of these coaches.”
Sophomore pitcher Cre Finfrock notes that Rooney holds himself and other players to a high standard.
“He stays honest, pushes us and really expects a lot from us,” Finfrock said. “He always tells us that our expectations should be the same as his expectations.”
Sometimes players from the big leagues will come back to attend practices, chatting to current players about what their days on the UCF baseball team were like.
“They are great guys, and they have built this place to where it is now,” Diorio said.
During practices, Rooney holds the players to an exceptional level of excellence.
“[We’re] coming out every day and giving our best, a lot of energy, extreme focus, making sure that every single day we are getting better and that we aren’t wasting a day,” Diorio said. “Every day we come out here and our work ethic is high, our energy is high and [we’re] giving it everything we got.”
The 2014 American Coach of the Year has worked diligently to get the UCF baseball program to where it is at today.
He deems his success due to great players and a great staff, specifically mentioning former sport administrator David Hanson.
“You have to surround yourself with great people,” Rooney said. “I’ve been so fortunate to have a great group of assistant coaches that are all in this thing working together, trying to get us to Omaha.”
Amanda Schoep is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future.