When UCF Baseball returns to John Euliano Park one month from today, the Knights will be looking to start a run similar to the one they put together in 2017. With a tough schedule and some roster turnover, coach Greg Lovelady will need some key players to step up. Here, we preview the upcoming season.
Rewind: In 2017, the Knights were tied for last in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll. All they did in response to that was win the regular season championship, playing to a 15-9 conference record and an overall mark of 40-22. The regular season title went down to the final day of the season, but UCF held off USF to complete a worst-to-first turnaround. UCF was then placed in the Tallahassee Regional, but fell in back-to-back games to end its postseason run early.
Despite the early exit in regionals, Lovelady’s first year in Orlando was a success. The Knights won a regular season conference championship for the first time in the AAC and the first time since 2004, back when they played in the Atlantic Sun Conference. UCF also earned a regional spot for the first time since 2012. The team was well-represented in the AAC’s postseason awards. Lovelady was named Coach of the Year, senior Robby Howell (10-1, 3.50 ERA) was selected as the Pitcher of the Year and freshman Rylan Thomas (.303, 14 home runs, 53 RBIs) was named Freshman Position Player of the Year.
Key Departures: UCF had to say goodbye to quite a bit of talent from last year’s championship team. The pitching staff lost Howell, Juan Pimentel, Drew Faintich, Jason Bahr, Jordan Scheftz and Trent Thompson. The lineup will see even more turnover, as Kam Gellinger, Ryan Crile, Brennan Bozeman, Kyle Marsh, Eli Putnam and Luke Hamblin are all gone.
Key Additions: With Howell and Pimentel moving on, the Knights lost two-thirds of its 2017 opening weekend pitching rotation. There are reinforcements in place, however, as the team added junior college standouts Jordan Spicer and J.J. Montgomery. Adding the two right-handers will surely give the rotation a boost, while the bullpen will get some contributions from a mixture of mainstays, junior college transfers and freshmen.
The lineup will feature plenty of newcomers, as the Knights have to replace their entire outfield, as well as their left side of the infield. Thomas, Matthew Mika and Logan Heiser are the only starters returning from last year’s regular lineup. Junior college transfers Brody Wofford, Chandler Robertson, Tyler Osik and a host of others could see time, as well as freshmen Griffin Bernardo, Adams Torres and Dalton Wingo.
Key Returners: Although there is some serious roster turnover, UCF has a few key players still around from last year’s team. Left-hander Joe Sheridan returns after a stellar freshman season that saw him go 10-4 with a 3.25 ERA. Chris Williams (5-4, 2.65 ERA) is also back after taking on a larger role midway through last season. In the bullpen, closer Bryce Tucker (1.66 ERA, nine saves) enters the year as a Collegiate Baseball Preseason All-American. Eric Hepple (0.46 ERA) and Thaddeus Ward (4-0, 2.29 ERA) should also serve as anchors for the bullpen. Cre Finfrock returns this year as well after missing all of last season with an injury.
Thomas, Mika and Heiser should still be starters heading into the year. Outfielder Max Wood, catcher/infielder Anthony George and catcher/infielder Dallas Beaver all return and could take on larger roles in 2018.
Schedule Highlights: UCF will play a tough schedule this year, starting Feb. 16-18 at home with a three-game tournament. The Knights will face Virginia, Rice and Samford, the first two of which were NCAA Tournament teams in 2017.
UCF will host the defending College World Series Champion Florida Gators on March 6 before heading to Gainesville on March 7. On March 14, the Knights host the Miami Hurricanes before a return trip down to Coral Gables on April 11. The team heads up to Tallahassee from March 20-21 to square off with Florida State.
Conference play opens on March 23 at home against East Carolina. The latest baseball chapter of the War on I-4 will unfold from April 20-22 in Tampa. From April 27-29, the Knights play host to AAC newcomer Wichita State.
May includes two games against FAU (home on May 1, away on May 8) and a non-conference home series against Oklahoma from May 11-13. UCF closes the season at home with a three-game series from May 17-19 against Tulane.
Overall, the Knights will play 36 home games and 17 games against teams that made last year’s NCAA Tournament. They don’t leave the state of Florida until March 29, when they start a three-game series at Memphis.
UCF opens the 2018 season on Feb. 16 at home against Virginia. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m.