ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFAthletics.com) - With drills whirring and hammers pounding in the background, UCF standout first baseman D.J. Hicks took one look up at the finishing touches being done to the renovations at the UCF baseball complex on Tuesday and made a fairly bold prediction.
"We're all really excited and seeing these new bleachers going up every day helps out with that excitement,'' said Hicks, Conference USA's preseason Player of the Year pick. ``We got a taste of going to a (NCAA) regional last year. I think the next step for us to get to Omaha is hosting a regional. It looks like that's in our future.''
Hicks can dare to dream big because it seems like everything is falling into place for UCF's rapidly blossoming baseball team. The Knights, 39-23 a season ago, have most of the core back from a team that reached the NCAA Regionals last spring. Baseball America thought enough of the talent to rank the Knights No. 21 in its preseason poll. Add in the massive enhancements made to the facility and a third straight Top 25 recruiting class and the Knights seemingly have all the momentum in place for what could be a special season.
In the months leading up to Friday's Opening Night against LIU-Brooklyn - a 6:30 p.m. game that's free to the public - the Knights have talked about going from "good to great.'' They were delighted to get back to the NCAA Regionals for the first time in seven years last season, but now the goal this season is to take more steps along the path to Omaha and the College Baseball World Series. First and foremost, the Knights hope to put their new facility to use by hosting Regional and Super Regional Tournaments.
UCF head coach Terry Rooney has taught his team to dream big since he arrived on campus and now he actually likes the fact that expectations are sky high. He's eager to see his deep and dynamic team try to live up to the hype.
"Good to great has been the slogan of our team since we got back here in late August,'' said Rooney, who is 94-80 in four seasons at UCF. ``Last year, what this team accomplished was good and by no means do I want to diminish what they accomplished. To get back to the NCAA Regionals speaks volumes. But we all feel like we have the kind of team that can take the next step now. The next step is putting ourselves in a position to host that regional and be in a position to get to Omaha.''
UCF is confident that this team is ready to accomplish more because it returns six position players who were starters and eight pitchers. Hicks was an All-American selection last season and anchors a lineup that also includes speedsters Ronnie Richardson and Darnell Sweeney. Both Richardson and Sweeney were All-C-USA preseason picks and both have talked about how UCF's losing in the NCAA Regionals last spring fed the competitive fire throughout this offseason.
"That experience just got us going because we just got a taste of it last year,'' said Sweeney, who has worked hard this offseason with assistant coach Ryan Klosterman to improve his consistency at shortstop. ``We know how it feels and what it takes to get to that level and we want to get back there again. As a veteran team who got there last year, we know what to expect and we'll be better prepared this year.''
Having loads of experience and talent on the mound helps the Knights be more prepared as well. Junior LHP Brian Adkins, the team leader with six wins last season, earned the starting slot on Opening Knight. Rooney considers the progress of talented sophomore Ben Lively (5-1 a season ago) as one of the big keys to the season. And 6-foot-6 lefty Chris Matulis, a transfer from LSU, will get the Sunday start in the opening series after impressing with his command of the strike zone.
Add in closer Joe Rogers (4-2, nine saves last year) and Ryan Breen (.285) and Chris Taladay (.279) sharing the catching role and sweet-swinging newcomer James Vasquez and the Knights feel that they have more than enough talent to be one of the best teams in the nation this season.
"We're getting a little respect (in the national rankings), but we're definitely not satisfied with it,'' said Adkins, an Orlando native who grew up watching UCF baseball and revels now in the rise of the program. "(Being ranked No. 21) is a nice, little shout-out to us, but we're definitely looking for more out of this season. We want to be the top team in the nation.''
John Denton's Knights Insider appears on UCFAthletics.com several times a week. E-mail John at email@example.com.