It’s one of the most competitive rivalries in college sports — UCF battled it out with AAC rival, the USF Bulls, once again this weekend in the I-4 Corridor series at Jay Bergman Field.
With an overall record of 19-17 and a conference record of 3-3, head coach Terry Rooney and company needed big wins from a conference series that could put them on a path toward success.
Starting off the action on Friday, the Knights had a tough loss against the Bulls. Scoring all of their runs in the third inning, the Knights offense just couldn’t come alive in time to stage a full-scale comeback.
In the 6-4 loss, left-handed pitcher and redshirt senior Harrison Hukari had an exceptional game, pitching a little more than six innings after relieving sophomore right-handed pitcher Cre Frinfrock, who pitched the first 2 1/3 innings.
Hukari left the Bulls with zeros across the scoreboard for the rest of the game after coming into a situation in which the Knights trailed by six.
Striking out seven and walking three, Hukari gave up only two hits in the relief outing.
Junior outfielder Eugene Vazquez hit his first home run of the season in the bottom of the second inning.
Then came Saturday, when the Knights tied up the series by dominating the Bulls, 4-0, offensively and defensively.
American Pitcher of the Week, junior right-handed pitcher Robby Howell, pitched seven innings of one-hit baseball, fanning seven and walking three.
The undefeated pitcher stood on the mound 7-0, tying his career high for strikeouts in a game.
Howell wasn’t the only one to shine in the performance, however.
Freshman infielder Anthony George, junior middle infielder Ryan Crile and junior outfielder Eli Putnam all had RBIs in the game.
Putnam also scored two runs and had two hits, one of which was a solo-shot in the bottom half of the seventh.
“Yesterday was kind of a gut check,” Howell said. “We had to come in today and kind of prove something and come to the field looking to win a game.”
Then came Championship Sunday, in which the series was tied at one win apiece, with the wind blowing so hard that reporters’ laptops were sliding around with papers and notes.
Junior right-handed pitcher Juan Pimentel pitched the first six innings, allowing three quick runs in the first inning but then adapting and leaving the Bulls scoreless for the next four, showing zeroes across the scoreboard.
“He’s done a great job, and he has had quality starts all the way,” head coach Terry Rooney said. “To give up three runs in the first and then essentially zeros the rest of the way, that’s toughness.”
After putting some runs on the board and biting away at the Bull’s lead, the Knight gave enough cushion to defensively support the newly named Championship Sunday starter, Pimentel.
Trailing by one in the bottom half of the fifth inning, junior catcher Matt Diorio doubled to left-center field, tying the game at three, allowing junior middle infielder Kam Gellinger to smack in the go-ahead run with a single to right field.
USF would tie the game in the sixth with a solo-shot to right field, but UCF answered right back with two non-consecutive singles up the middle that each scored a run from junior outfielder Eugene Vazquez and freshman third baseman Matthew Mika.
“I was dealing with a broken wrist, and I just came back and I had to do what I had to do to try and help the team out,” Mika said.
Junior right-handed pitcher Trent Thompson came into the game as relief for the final three innings of work, letting the Bulls have a bases-loaded situation but eventually ending the threat after forcing two fly balls to shallow right field near the foul line territory. Each were caught, and the game ended.
“The composure of this team is phenomenal,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t matter up or down, early, late or what the score is, this team is going to play the same way. They are going to be hard-nosed and compete till the last out.”
Taking the series 2-1, UCF was able to improve its record to 20-19 while building its conference record to 5-4.
They now sit in third place, tied with East Carolina and behind only UConn (5-3) and Cincinnati (6-3).
“What a win, what a series,” Rooney said. “I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
Amanda Schoep is a Senior Staff Writer for the Central Florida Future.