ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - Rice and UCF were picked to finish one-two in the Conference USA standings prior to the season, and they certainly lived up to that by sharing the top two spots throughout 23 league games this year.
Never were the two powerhouse teams separated by more than two games, and they were tied at the top of the standings on 12 different occasions.
So it's only fitting now - two games deep into an epic UCF-Rice winner-take-all series - that the two teams are again tied with one final game on Saturday at 1 p.m. to decide the regular-season champions of Conference USA.
No. 13 UCF (41-13 overall and 16-7 in C-USA play) outlasted No. 4 Rice 8-6 in the conclusion of Game 1 of the series to put itself in position to win its first C-USA title. However, No. 4 Rice (38-15 and 16-7) refused to go away quietly, topping the Knights 9-2 in the rain-delayed nightcap to set up a deciding game on Saturday for the league title.
"We talk all of the time about championship Sunday; well, it's championship Saturday now," UCF head coach Terry Rooney said. "Every single weekend we've talked about (winning a championship). So we'll be there at 1 o'clock. What else could you ask for?"
Friday night's result put somewhat of a damper on UCF's 8-6 win earlier in the day and its chance to win a first conference title since 2005 when it was still a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference. A boisterous crowd of 2,687 fans - the fifth-largest all-time at the UCF Baseball Complex and most ever against a non-Florida team - saw the Knights tie the game at 2-all in the fourth inning. However, Rice put the game away by scoring two runs in the fifth, two in the eighth and two in the ninth.
UCF knew all along knocking out Rice would be extremely difficult considering the Owls' championship pedigree. Rice has made 17-straight NCAA Tournament appearances and has reached the College World Series six times. Now, the Knights must knock out the longtime champs in order to get themselves a championship ring.
"We kind of figured it would come down to this,'' said junior center fielder Ronnie Richardson, who scored two twice in UCF's 8-6 Game 1 win and had a hit in Game 2. "We just have to go win (on Saturday). It's the definition of championship Sunday, even though it won't be Sunday.''
Rooney now must decide on a starting pitcher for Saturday's winner-take-all game. He could start veteran lefthander Brian Adkins (3-4, 4.20 ERA), Ray Hanson (4-1, 3.51 ERA) or freshman lefty Eric Skoglund (5-1, 2.01). Rooney said he'll opt for the pitcher who can throw the most strikes after the Knights' pitchers walked 14 batters and hit three in the two games.
Adkins, a fixture of the rotation the past three games, is desperately hoping he gets the chance to start after slumping down the stretch. Adkins is a finesse pitcher who relies on location and change of speeds.
"It's huge. Personally I've never had a chance to play for a championship of this magnitude, so I'm very excited and hoping to seize this opportunity,'' Adkins said. "(Starting) is what I'm hoping for. Obviously, I want the ball with the game on the line or the series on the line.''
Trailing 2-0 in the fourth inning, the Knights turned to the bottom of their order to tie the game up. Jeramy Matos drilled a double into the left field corner to plate Ryan Breen, who had walked. With two outs, Travis Shreve lined the ball up the middle - his fourth hit in the two games - to knot the game at 2-all.
"All season we have given coach gray hairs with one-run games, so it's kind of fitting that it will come down to this last game for championship (Saturday),'' said Shreve, who pointed at his family in the stands upon tying up the game. "They're going through the same conditions as us, so there are no excuses. What it comes down to is the tougher team is going to win. They're a great team and we're a great team, and we have to do what we can to win.''
Rice retook a two-run lead in the fifth inning without getting a hit. Two walks, a hit batter, a wild pitch and a fielder's choice plated two runs to put the Owls up 4-2.
UCF closer Joe Rogers finished off Rice in Game 1, striking out Michael Fuda with two runners on to preserve the 8-6 victory. Remarkably, the conclusion of the game came just a few minutes shy of when it started 24 hours earlier. Rogers, already UCF's all-time leader in saves, tied a UCF season-record with his 12th save of the year.
The Game 1 victory was UCF's first defeat of a top-five team since last April when the Knights topped No. 5 Florida at the UCF baseball complex.
UCF started Friday with an 8-3 lead, but the advantage shrunk to 8-6 after reliever Roman Madrid walked in two runs and gave up a run-scoring single. Right fielder Alex Friedrich made sure Rice got no closer, throwing out Rice's Shane Hoelscher at the plate for his seventh outfield assist of the season.
In the early innings on Thursday, UCF rattled and knocked Rice standout starter Matthew Reckling out of the game in third inning with a pair of two-RBI hits from Darnell Sweeney and Chris Taladay. Sweeney drove a 3-1 pitch to the opposite field for a double that scored Nick Carrillo and Travis Shreve, who had reached on a walk and a hit-and-run single respectively. Taladay made it 4-0 with another hit to left-center and D.J. Hicks pushed the score to 5-0 with his 66th RBI of the season.
Friedrich, UCF's most consistent hitter all season, made Rice pay for intentionally walking Hicks in front of him by stroking a double to clear the bases in the fourth inning. The three-run shot to the wall gave the Knights a commanding 8-0 lead after four innings.
Now, after a season's worth of games, a suspended contest, lengthy rain delays on Thursday and Friday and victories by both squads it comes down one game on Saturday for UCF or Rice to win a championship. Richardson said he's fully confident that his team will rise to the occasion on the big stage and produce in Saturday's winner-take-all game.
"We dreamed about this and this is why we came to UCF. Coach Rooney put together the foundation of this team and now it's just about us going out to perform.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at firstname.lastname@example.org.