It was a day 13 years in the making but one that also seemed to be an eternity away mere months ago.
The UCF Baseball team completed its worst-to-first transformation Saturday, winning the American Athletic Conference championship with a 3-2 victory over their arch-rival, the South Florida Bulls, in the regular-season finale. It was the Knights' first conference title since 2004 when the likes of Drew Butera, Tim Bascom and Dee Brown were sporting the Black and Gold.
This clinching game played out like many of UCF's previous efforts this season: Just enough offense; starting pitcher Joe Sheridan looking nothing like a true freshman; a couple of shutdown innings from the bullpen. Only this win came with some pretty valuable hardware and substantially more emotion.
Sophomore Kyle Marsh said he and many of his teammates were left speechless after the final out was recorded.
"Nobody really had anything to say to each other -- just hugs and a lot of crying," he said.
The realization of a championship dream is an affecting experience for any team. For a college baseball team, the players spend four months worth of weekends on the diamond. They sweat and grind and push their bodies while most other college students are relaxing, happy to finally spend some time out of the classroom. Factor in the traveling, practices, workouts, meetings, not to mention the academic requirements, and it obviously means a lot for any team to see their sacrifices rewarded.
But for this team specifically, there is an added layer to the emotion that poured out during Saturday's celebration. Those tears washed away the hard times the Knights, especially the upperclassmen, have gone through recently.
"Seeing the look on the seniors' faces on that last out -- struggled here for three years, didn't see the results, coming in with a new coach this year, you didn't really know what to expect -- that emotion on their faces was awesome," Sheridan said.
UCF went 25-34 and tied for last place in the AAC in 2016. Coming off that poor campaign and with uncertainty surrounding head coach Greg Lovelady's first season in Orlando, the Knights were predicted to finish in a tie for last place in the AAC's preseason poll. That ranking was always in the back of players' minds. For them, Saturday was vindication of their own beliefs in themselves and about proving the doubters wrong. For Lovelady, Saturday was confirmation that the move he made to UCF last July after spending 12 years at Wright State was the right one.
"Making the move with my family and telling them that it was going to be worth it," Lovelady said while trying his hardest to keep from breaking down, "it doesn't truly validate it, but in some sense, it does. Maybe not in my eyes, but just for my family and stuff, for the people that I left in Ohio to come here and do this, maybe it makes the transition a little bit easier for them. It's been an awesome day. I'll never forget it."
Lovelady knows his players will never forget this crowning achievement either.
"These memories last a lifetime," he said. "In 20 years, when they come back here and see where this program is at in 20 years, they are going to know that they were the first team to start that mission and to get us on the right track, so I'll be forever grateful for that."
Don't tell the Knights they are actually co-champions (the Houston Couguars won an equal share of the regular-season title). These players have put up with too much losing, and the head coach took a big chance to see if he could turn them into winners, uprooting his wife and two sons in the process. They aren't sharing this moment with anyone. It is wholly theirs forever.
"I can't tell you how proud I am," Lovelady told his players in their postgame huddle. "I love every single one of you to death. ... I am so freaking proud that you can call yourselves conference champions."