In a season that began by looking like perhaps its best one ever, the UCF baseball team's hopes may come down to the final weekend of the year.
This weekend, UCF will travel to Tampa to take on USF. After that, the only thing remaining on the schedule is the American Athletic Conference Tournament. The Knights are 2-1 against the Bulls this season.
"We know that every time we need to compete and we need to win games," sophomore pitcher Robby Howell said. "We have four games left and we're just going to continue doing what we've been doing and continue to compete and try to win games."
Early in the season, UCF was considered one of the best teams in the country and was ranked as high as No. 6 in the nation.
It looked as though the conference tournament wouldn't be a big deal because they were playing well enough to receive an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, which grants an automatic berth into regional play.
After a stretch through April and May with 13 losses, the Knights are now 30-22 and were unranked in last week's polls.
Due to the lackluster months, an at-large bid is off the table and if UCF wants to make it into the NCAA Tournament, the only surefire way is to win the American Athletic Conference Tournament and get the American Conference's automatic bid.
The Knights were in a similar scenario last season. They believed that they had done enough to warrant an at-large bid, but still had to play to win in the AAC Tournament to be safe. They won two games, but were knocked out by Houston in the final game of pool play.
This year, the tournament is set up a little differently. Instead of a straight seeding single-elimination, there will be four days of pool play and the two teams with the best records during that time will meet in the championship on May 29.
Even with the different set up, the teams will still be seeded heading into the tournament based on conference record.
Prior to the final regular season series against USF, UCF is 9-12 in the conference and would be seeded seventh. However, the four teams directly above them in the standings – one of which is USF – are all 11-10, so there is some room for the Knights to move up before the regular season ends.
Another one of the teams that is 11-10 is Memphis, the team that UCF hosted in its final home series of the year last weekend. The Knights beat the Tigers on Friday, but lost a one-run game on Saturday to force a rubber match on Sunday, which UCF won 4-1 on the back of Howell.
"We got the hits we needed to, made some great plays out there on defense," said UCF head coach Terry Rooney. "On Championship Sunday, Robby really set the tone and picked us up and did a terrific job."
The same as last season, the AAC Tournament will be played in Clearwater, Florida, at Bright House Field, which is home to the Clearwater Threshers, a class-A advanced affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies play in the stadium during spring training.
The tournament is May 20-24 and will be broadcast on the American Athletic Conference's website.
Colin Bell is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.