Feb. 12, 2008
Filling in roster gaps and holes in the starting rotation has coaches losing sleep during offseasons. This year, however, the UCF staff had the luxury of sitting back with a sneaky smile, knowing that almost all of the talent it contained for 2007 would be returning for the 2008 campaign.
While all eight starting position players and a distinct variety of pitchers are all once again suiting up in the Black and Gold, last year's collection of Knights learned how to win in the clutch, as they posted four victories when tied or trailing entering the ninth inning. UCF also had many other late-game heroics, including a 5-4 triumph at LSU after being behind 4-3 in the seventh inning. Those wins helped many of the Knights mature rapidly, which should prove to be very beneficial this season.
"Experience is the key not just on the pitching staff, but the entire team," said head coach Jay Bergman, who ranks 17th on the NCAA Division I coaching list with 1,183 victories in 31 collegiate seasons. "I think this is kind of like a team that is on a mission. They have been very frustrated the last two years with their performance. But I feel that our players are on the right track now. They have been through so much that I don't see them giving in through tough situations."
UCF learned last year that its starters needed to extend themselves beyond five innings for the entire team to be successful. And while the Knights did not post a complete game, many hurlers stepped up and demonstrated they have the stamina to survive in Conference USA. The biggest surprise came from Jaager Good. The senior, who did not make a start his first two seasons, blossomed into a Friday night starter and posted a 3.89 earned-run average with 62 strikeouts in 88.0 innings. Good capped off his stellar campaign with seven shutout innings in a win over Houston in the C-USA Championship.
Junior Kyle Sweat
made at least 10 starts for the second-straight year, and had three outings of 8.0 innings, highlighted by a victory at No. 17 Florida in which he allowed just two hits. Another key component to the starting rotation will be sophomore lefty Mitch Houck
, who had a 4.50 ERA in six starts before earning a medical redshirt. Fellow southpaw Mitch Herold
also has the coaching staff excited about all of the possibilities for this year's rotation.
"We will probably start off in February with Jaager Good, Kyle Sweat, Mitch Herold and Mitch Houck," admitted Bergman. "That will be the first starting rotation to open the year, and out of that group, somebody will need to step up and be a Friday night starter. We have a pretty good nucleus, but I think the strength of our team is that we have possibly the most depth we have ever had in a staff.
"There are eight or nine guys that can start, including Carmine Giardina who was in and out as a freshman with arm trouble. Jaager pitched well for us last year, Mitch Houck was a medical redshirt, Kyle showed signs of being able to win in this conference, and Austin Hudson had a pretty good freshman year in his role. Mitch Herold is a developmental guy that probably has the best stuff on the team. It's just a matter of him being consistent, locating pitches, not getting behind on hitters and having the confidence to push himself over any hurdles."
Along with a solid core of experienced pitchers, Bergman will rely on a plethora of newcomers as well.
"Cody Allen, Evan Stobbs, Brian Griggs, Cory Weech, Brennan Dobbins, Paul Cinder and Caleb Graham all add quality depth to our pitching staff," said Bergman. "After we get started, the pitching staff could look different by conference time or by the end of the season. There are a lot of guys who are jockeying for position. And there are a lot of players who can do a lot of things for us as well. That gives us a pretty good opportunity to utilize the talent we have.
"Evan Stobbs might be a weekend guy for us too because he's that good. And I'm not so sure Brian Griggs couldn't start either. So it's going to be interesting to see how it all plays out. There are a lot of clouds there, but there is not any rain in those clouds."
"We will probably start off in February with Jaager Good
, Kyle Sweat
, Mitch Herold
and Mitch Houck
. That will be the first starting rotation to open the year. We have a pretty good nucleus, but I think the strength of our team is that we have possibly the most depth we have ever had in a staff."
A dilemma the coaches faced before the 2007 season was who would take over the reigns as the UCF closer. They quickly found their answer in Justin Weiss. The junior pitched in only four games as a freshman, but turned it on as a sophomore to finish with nine saves, a 4-1 record and a 1.38 ERA in 25 appearances. His ERA was the second-lowest in UCF history, while he completed the season by giving up just one run in his final 12 games. And Weiss accomplished the feat by using a sidearm delivery for the first time in his career.
"With Justin back as our closer, that gives us an added dimension to our whole staff," said Bergman. "I think realistically we will have to develop a second closer. We will try to get someone in that role particularly for weekday games, and there are a number of players that could do that for us. But right now, Justin is on the weekends and we'll see how many innings he pitches and how durable he can be. He's going to be challenged quite a bit.
"Even though teams now know that Justin Weiss has evolved into one of the top closers in the conference, I don't think that will affect his mental attitude. I think that gives him confidence, there's no question about that. I'm kind of surprised that he didn't get a lot of preseason attention. He's going to want to prove that he deserves more looks from around the country."
Junior Brandon Romans and sophomore Shane Brown combined for 41 starts behind the plate in their respective first seasons with the Knights. Senior Tim Russell could also see time as the UCF backstop after being used as a pinch-hitter in 2007. Meanwhile, junior Rob Lara ventures to Orlando after two campaigns at LSU, where he developed into a defensive stalwart as a collegiate catcher.
"What we have to do behind the plate is become more consistent defensively," acknowledged Bergman. "Shane and Brandon have the chance to be good offensive players, but we have got to be able to throw runners out at a better percentage. That being said, Brandon played most of the season with an injured hand and Shane was just a freshman. In the fall, they showed that they were getting better, and were enabling us to be optimistic about our catchers."
All C-USA First-Team honoree Kiko Vazquez took advantage of his time in the Cape Cod League over the summer and, according to Bergman, returned to UCF "in the best physical shape he has ever been in." The junior first baseman still possesses all of his skills he eloquently demonstrated a year ago, a season in which he hit .364 with nine dingers, 57 RBI and an OPS of 1.054. Although he will be on the bench to open the year due to an injury, Vazquez will still play a huge role in how this season shapes up.
"Kiko has been evolving similar to what we have seen with most of our players and their development," said Bergman. "He struggled as a freshman then really matured as a sophomore. His numbers were good last year, and may have to be even better this year. He's capable of that, though. Kiko is also extremely underrated defensively.
"Evan Stobbs will play a little first base and pitch as well. On the mound he will get a lot of innings, and in the fall he showed some pretty good signs of having some power at the plate. He's a good baseball player and played on a championship team in high school. That has carried over into the way he is, as he views himself as a winner and knows how to win."
One of UCF's more versatile players offensively, senior Dwayne Bailey swiped 19 bases out of 20 attempts in 2007 while laying down 11 sacrifices, the fifth-most in school history. Bergman feels Bailey, who could see time over at shortstop as well, enters 2008 as the team's most improved player from the summer through the end of the fall slate.
"We made Bailey quit switch-hitting, and he became more comfortable towards the end of the season batting just right-handed," admitted Bergman. "He has good speed, but had a little defensive lapse last year. That was just part of his maturing process from junior college to Division I. He could bat a little higher this year in the lineup, maybe second. He is a good, solid player for us who has emerged as a leader.
"If we do have some situations on the infield where we need to go the bench, Kyle Mills has the ability to step up after seeing a lot of time as a freshman. Kyle and Tim Russell are the same type of people. They are good baseball players and are willing to assume their respective roles. They are very valuable for any team.
"Stephen Branca, a freshman drafted out of high school by the Twins, will also be a type of guy who could contend for a starting position on the infield. He will be a really good player for us, and it will be a gradual thing for him. When he gets some confidence, he will be very good.
"I really feel that our best teams are when we have strong benches. And I think that's the one thing we have this year where we will be able to make some moves and do some things that you have to do as a coach."
Making at least 50 starts in each of his first two seasons in a Black and Gold uniform, junior Eric Kallstrom improved almost all of his offensive numbers in 2007, batting .269 at the plate with 32 RBI. He also posted an impressive stretch in the field where he did not make an error in 96 chances from Feb. 25-March 31.
"Eric Kallstrom had a good fall, and has been a regular for two years," said Bergman. "I think this is the year that if he is going to step up and be a force in this league, this is the time for him to do that, physically and mentally. His experience, arm strength and ability to play that position day in and day out are crucial to this team's success."
It was not until game No. 11 last year that sophomore Chris Duffy began to turn into one of the league's top hitters. Following a slow beginning to his collegiate career, the C-USA All-Freshman Team selection went on a tear at the plate, boasting a .306 average in his final 47 contests and finishing with eight homers and 34 RBI.
"Duffy's numbers were a little bit better than Kiko's when you look at their freshman seasons," compared Bergman. "He's got pretty good raw power. They will back-to-back in the lineup, we're just not sure where. You have to have people in the lineup who compliment each other and I think they do that very well.
"Chris did make a lot of errors, as a freshman sometimes might do. Obviously he is a very good offensively player, and needs to make some improvements defensively. He is a hard worker that wants to do well, and we expect great things from Duffy. Stephen Branca and Josh Siebenaler can also play there. So we have some options, but certainly Duffy's bat will be in the lineup. We have to have that."
Senior Tyson Auer
anchors the UCF outfield after earning All-C-USA Second-Team accolades for his performance in center. In 57 starts, he hit .356 while leading the Knights with 46 runs scored and 27 stolen bases, mostly from the leadoff or No. 3 hole in the lineup.
"We are still pondering where to put Tyson on the lineup card," said Bergman. "That is probably going to be our most monumental decision. That is a good problem to have, and in my world, I would like him to leadoff. At the same time, he might be able to provide other things for us. I think a lot depends on how he gets started."
Fellow classmate Ryan Richardson joined Auer as a very consistent hitter for UCF. In 55 starts in right field, and 58 games overall, Richardson racked up a .313 batting average and was a perfect 12-for-12 in stolen bases. In his first year at the D-I level, he never had a three-game stretch where he failed to notch a base hit. Set to join him in the outfield are returning veteran Chadd Hartman and newcomer Colin Arnold.
"Ryan Richardson has made a nice jump and is very competitive," thought Bergman. "Colin Arnold is a junior college transfer who will probably start in left, and will be a really good player for us. Josh Siebenaler can play the outfield really well, so he is a utility player who you hate to label him as a utility player because he is that good. But that gives us strength, because any injuries or slumps we may have, we can make some moves."
UCF may boast a wealth of returning talent and experience for 2008, but it found itself overlooked in the preseason as one of the nation's most dangerous teams. No matter, UCF's coaching staff still has that sneaky smile across its face as the Knights have a prime chance at flying under the radar towards one of the most exciting seasons in program history.