ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - A UCF baseball team growing by leaps and bounds almost by the day took another major step on Monday when it earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season.
Now, a year after simply reaching a NCAA Regional in 2011, the Knights are hoping to use that experience to benefit them greatly when they head to Coral Gables later this week to face Missouri State and then possibly either Miami or Stony Brook.
Gathered around televisions at The MOAT Monday afternoon, UCF's players, coaches and fans let out a loud roar when it was revealed that the Knights (43-15) earned a second seed in the Miami region and will face Missouri State (39-20) in first-round play of the double-elimination weekend.
"That experience from last year will help us tremendously. We don't want that same feeling that we had last year when we left out of Florida State. We want to make it a totally feeling this year,'' standout centerfielder Ronnie Richardson said. ``Last year we lost our first game and you really don't want to lose that first game because it puts you in a bad position. We're going to take it one game at a time and try to win every game.''
UCF, which spent all season ranked nationally, will be playing in a NCAA Regional in Coral Gables for the first time in school history. The Knights had played previously in Tallahassee seven times, in Gainesville twice and once in Columbia, S.C.
As for Miami, the Knights split a pair of games, winning in Coral Gables where this week's Regional will be held.
"To be able to go down to Miami is pretty cool. And to be able to avoid Florida and Florida State for now is good, too,'' Richardson said. ``Maybe we'll meet them in Omaha (at the College World Series), that would be cool, too.''
Head coach Terry Rooney, the architect of UCF's turnaround in baseball, feels the Knights got loads of positive experience from qualifying for a NCAA Regional last season and that will pay off this week. UCF defeated Bethune-Cookman, but lost two games to Alabama last spring. The Knights started this season with a theme of `good to great,' and winning this weekend and reaching a Super Regional would qualify as another huge step for the program.
"First and foremost, nothing can replace experience. Last year was the first time any of the players in our program had gone to a NCAA Regional. Now that we've been there I think that experience will help us moving forward,'' Rooney said. ``At the beginning of the year, our theme was `good to great,' and when you talk about our regular season we achieved that with more than 40 wins and second place in the conference. Now, we've put ourselves in a good position to win a regional.''
UCF will open against a Missouri State team that ranked 35th in the nation this season in RPI and notched several impressive victories. The Bears swept two games from Oklahoma State, beat Purdue, swept three games from Creighton and also toppled Kansas (twice), Kansas State and Wichita State (twice). Missouri State lost to NCAA Tournament team, Missouri, 4-3 in 11 innings on April 25 and 10-5 on May 9. The Bears lost 3-2 in 10 innings to Southern Illinois in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament semifinals.
"It's a great regional. We obviously know about Miami having had the opportunity to play them and it's an outstanding program,'' Rooney said. ``Stony Brook is a four seed, but they are clearly one of the best in the entire bracket. And with Missouri State, just look at their record and the teams that they beat. The point being that it's an outstanding, competitive regional.''
UCF has won at Alex Rodriguez Stadium twice in the last three years and will go to South Florida quite familiar with their surroundings. UCF defeated Miami 4-1 on April 4 behind a home run from Richardson, two RBI from standout first baseman D.J. Hicks and work from six pitchers. The Knights feel that playing in a park where they have had success will also be an advantage for them.
"I think it is an advantage (playing in Miami). For me personally I love playing there because the ball flies. So you don't have to swing quite as hard,'' Hicks said. ``A lot of us love playing down there.''
After a slow start in the C-USA Tournament, UCF rallied to defeat East Carolina and Tulane and will take plenty of momentum with it into the Regional. Rooney said every decision he makes over the weekend will be with the mindset of trying to win the weekend and push the Knights further into the NCAA tourney.
"When you talk about the pitching matchups, to me two things are important. Number one is that you are playing one game at a time and I mean that. I know it's a coach's cliché, but it's true,'' Rooney said. ``And number two, you are there to win the regional. We talk about this `On the Road to Omaha,' and `Good to Great,' but at the end of the day we're playing to get to Omaha. We feel comfortable going down there and any decision that we is trying to win a regional. You think short term and about the whole regional, too. We're just very excited about this opportunity.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.