Check off another goal achieved by the UCF Baseball team. At an on-campus watch party Friday with the coaches, players and some family members in attendance, The 22nd-ranked Knights saw their name unveiled as the No. 2 seed in the Tallahassee Regional. It marked the program’s 12th NCAA Tournament appearance but the first for anyone on this team as UCF had been absent from the tourney since 2012.
“One of my big goals as a coach is to make sure that every single player that comes through our program gets this opportunity,” head coach Greg Lovelady said shortly after UCF’s place in the bracket was shown. “These are things that they are going to talk about for the rest of their lives. So, I’m just really happy and proud of the guys. These leaders, the older guys, really set out on a mission and to be able to do this is really cool.”
One of those older guys, senior outfielder Luke Hamblin, said he knew this day could be a reality from Day 1 with Lovelady.
“To be honest, right there in that first meeting, I knew [making the tournament] was a strong possibility,” he said. “Then we came out and played the way we did, played together and now here we are in this situation. It’s pretty awesome.”
The Knights will join the hosting Florida State Seminoles, fourth-seeded Tennessee Tech and third-seeded Auburn at Dick Howser Stadium this weekend. Their first taste of national tournament play will come at noon Friday against the Tigers on ESPN2.
Auburn stumbled down the stretch, losing 10 of its final 13 games and ending up as one of the last four teams into the field. But their top two starting pitchers, Keegan Thompson and Casey Mize, are now healthy and can silence any offense. The duo has a 2.19 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP and has struck out 163 batters in a combined 160 innings.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a challenge,” Lovelady said about solving Thompson and Mize. “[Auburn has] played some good baseball. I’ve watched a couple of their games. They are going to be a well-rounded SEC team, so it’s going to be a good challenge for us.
“But we’ve set ourselves up, obviously in our conference, Florida, Florida State, Miami — they are all very similar teams, so we won’t be unprepared.”
The Knights have seen the Seminoles before and probably will again if they can get past the Tigers. Florida State took both games against UCF in Orlando back in March, a series that contained some of the Knights’ worst baseball this season. Hamblin certainly hasn’t forgotten those losses.
“They beat us, but we know that and we want some revenge on them,” he said. “We think we can compete with everyone here, especially in the state of Florida and all across the nation, so we’re going to come out ready to go. I’m real excited.”
Of course, none of the Knights will tell you that just being in the tournament is satisfying enough.
“It’s everyone’s dream to go to a regional, but that’s only our first stop,” Hamblin said. “We plan on going far.”
For the first time in five years, UCF is officially back to being ORTO: On the Road To Omaha.