UCF Baseball head coach Greg Lovelady and his players said making an NCAA regional is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.
As for how the Knights performed in that regional, it might be best to just forget that. Not that last weekend in Tallahassee was completely bereft of memorable moments for UCF. Senior Robby Howell gave a gutsy showing in his final start with the Black and Gold versus Auburn, and junior relief pitcher Jason Bahr struck out nine batters in his three-inning stint versus Florida State.
However, too many mistakes in the field and not nearly enough offense precluded the Knights from making their intended deep run in the tournament. Saturday's elimination at the hands of the Seminoles marked the end for the team's 12 seniors, to whom Lovelady expressed his sincere gratitude.
"I thanked the seniors and told them how much I loved them," Lovelady said last Saturday via UCF Athletics. "I told them how grateful me and my family are that they took us with open arms and did everything I asked. They set forth on a mission that nobody thought they could do and didn't care. They just went out every day and sacrificed, believed in each other and believed in the staff. They are the ones that deserve all the credit because when there is a new coach, the older guys determine everything."
Any team with that many departures is going to have some large holes to fill. The Knights are no different, but there are reasons for optimism in 2018.
The offense will be the focus of the biggest rebuilding effort. The Knights' lineup has been basically decapitated with the graduations of 0utfielders Luke Hamblin and Eli Putnam. They set the tone at the top of the order; while Hamblin paced the team in on-base percentage (.412), Putnam was its leader in runs (48) and batting average (.315). The Knights also have to replace the left side of their infield as third baseman Kam Gellinger and shortstop Brennan Bozeman have exhausted their eligibility. Infielder Ryan Crile, who played in 52 games this season, must move on as well.
I don't know how Lovelady and his staff will cover all those gaps, but they do have one stout, powerful building block in cleanup hitter Rylan Thomas, the AAC's Freshman Hitter of the Year. Thomas' 14 home runs and 53 RBIs were each the third-most in the American Athletic Conference. Making that kind of immediate impact was the one personal goal Thomas set for himself this spring.
"Being able to come in, help the team out and drive runs in for the guys is definitely one of the things I wanted to do," Thomas said last month.
Elsewhere, sophomore infielder Matthew Mika, who batted in just about every lineup spot this season, may be able to fill one of those two slots at the top of the order that have been vacated by Hamblin and Putnam. The catching situation looks to be in good hands with sophomore Anthony George and junior Logan Heiser. Otherwise, the Knights will certainly be looking for the next Rylan Thomas in their incoming class.
Speaking of first-year standouts, where would the Knights be without starting pitcher Joe Sheridan? An NCAA Tournament appearance would not have been possible, nor would have been an AAC regular-season title, especially since Sheridan was the winning pitcher in the clincher.
The true freshman has a feel-good story. Sheridan grew up in Oviedo and can remember coming to UCF Baseball games when he was just 4 years old. He has called UCF his "dream school" and committed to the university during his freshman year at Hagerty High. And in his first run through college baseball, he posted a 3.25 ERA and at times appeared to be the team's best starter, even more so than the All-American Howell.
The burden to pick up Howell's conference-leading 103 innings won't fall on Sheridan alone, however. Sophomore Chris Williams made an emphatic case to be included in next year's weekend rotation with how he performed down the stretch. He allowed just one run over his final 21 innings (three starts) leading into the NCAA Tournament. Lovelady called Williams "one of the hottest pitchers in the country" prior to the tourney and although he had a fairly forgettable showing in that elimination game versus FSU, there's no doubt that he has an early leg up on one of those two remaining rotation spots.
UCF's bullpen should remain a strength as closer Bryce Tucker, the dominating Jason Bahr, Thad Ward and Jordan Scheftz -- arguably the four best relievers on the squad -- are all slated to return. With that kind of depth, it wouldn't be surprising if someone such as Bahr, who started five games this season and misses a ton of bats, falls in behind Sheridan and Williams in the starting rotation. However, Bahr was clearly more effective in a setup role. If the Knights' coaching staff considers such a move, they will have to decide if Bahr's proven short-term mastery is worth sacrificing for the hope that he can be just as effective over five, six or seven innings.
With Sheridan, Williams and all of those bullpen options, the Knights seem poised to have one of the best pitching staffs in the nation again. We'll see how the offense is pieced together, but the cupboard isn't bare.
Does this mean that we should expect the Knights to vie for another conference title and return to the NCAA tourney next year? You know better than to ask. Who would have thought the Knights would have had so much success entering this season? Conversely, who would have thought the East Carolina Pirates, the sixth-ranked team in the nation back in February and the overwhelming AAC preseason favorite, would plummet like they did?
Predictions and polls are pretty meaningless. But at the moment, the forecasted 2018 UCF Baseball team looks capable of proving that 2017 was not a fluke.