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UCF Baseball ready to battle USF with conference championship at stake

The Knights can win the AAC championship with a sweep this weekend

The Knights are looking to win their first regular-season conference title since 2004. (Photo: Brian Murphy)
The Knights are looking to win their first regular-season conference title since 2004. (Photo: Brian Murphy)

The UCF Baseball team is three wins away from claiming the American Athletic Conference regular-season championship. Think about that. And then think about where this program was less than a year ago. In the cellar of the AAC, head coach Terry Rooney's energy and optimism had fallen flat. It was clear that a change needed to be made. That came on July 11 when Greg Lovelady was tasked with guiding this team back to prominence. But how long would that take?

Well ... the UCF baseball team is three wins away from claiming the American Athletic Conference regular-season championship.

"If you had told us in January, 'Here's the situation you guys are going to be in,' we all would have raised our hands and said 'I'll take it,'" Lovelady said Wednesday.

All Black and Gold fans should second that.

The Knights control their own destiny. They can earn the title with a sweep of their final weekend series, which begins tonight 6:30 p.m. at the UCF Baseball Complex. But in case these three games didn't already contain enough drama, the Knights will be facing the arch-rival South Florida Bulls, who are tied with UCF atop the conference standings at 13-8 and who are also looking to wear the AAC crown. If neither team achieves a sweep, there are scenarios for how each of the four teams still eligible can end up becoming champion.

"These are the types of weekends that these kids will talk about for the rest of their lives," Lovelady said. "They got to come down to the last weekend playing for a regular-season championship. Obviously, with it being South Florida, it obviously adds a little bit to the mix."

The players know each other. Even the coaches know each other; USF head coach Mark Kingston was an assistant coach at the University of Miami during Lovelady's playing days. The two talk every week and Lovelady sees Kingston as one of his mentors.

"I don't think I'd be here without him," he said.

Another Knight who is looking forward to seeing the Bulls is Thursday's starting pitcher, senior Robby Howell. But his mindset is a little less friendly.

When asked Wednesday if he remembers his last outing versus USF, Howell simply said, "Yeah," with a little smirk and a fixed stare toward nothing in particular. It was April 7, and after tossing three scoreless innings, Howell helped the Bulls pick up three runs thanks to a quartet of fourth-inning walks. UCF went on to lose, 5-4. It's a memory that appears to sting Howell just a little bit, but will it be on his mind as he prepares for tonight's showdown?

"Absolutely," he said.

The Bulls went on to take all three games of that series in Tampa by a combined winning margin of just four runs. Everyone knows what's possible if the Knights can return the favor over the next three days.

"First time, they got the best of us and we're definitely going out to get the best of them this time," sophomore closer Bryce Tucker said. "Championship."

Championship. UCF players say they believed that such a goal was achievable this season, but hardly anyone else did. They were predicted to finish in a last-place tie with Memphis in the AAC's preseason poll. The growing pains of a rebuild that usually come standard with a new coach seemed inevitable. Yet, in Lovelady's first year, the Knights are on the doorstep of a regular-season championship in one of the country's toughest baseball conferences.

"This is what they wanted," Lovelady said. "We talked in our first meeting about the goals these kids wanted to accomplish and the things they wanted to do here, to leave their mark, their legacy here with the program and to do some things to prove to the world what they were capable of. This is what we signed up for."