To accurately describe this weekend for UCF Baseball, you needn't look any further than the university's own slogan: This is big.
In one way, the Knights have been planning for this weekend for months. In another way, they've been waiting for this weekend for years. This weekend, the start of conference play meets the official opening of the John Euliano Park expansion.
A (bigger) home to call our own
Obviously, John Euliano Park has been open for business since this season began. But what fans have experienced thus far was only part of a larger vision. The crown jewel of the stadium's renovation, which began in October, was the new Home Plate Tower and its 300-seat, second-deck club area. That area has been under continued construction through the season's first five weeks. Starting tonight, it will be taken over by UCF faithful.
Here at John Euliano Park, there are still plenty of construction workers on the grounds, but those upper-deck club seats will finally be open for game action Friday night. #UCF pic.twitter.com/Ket8gtKNFD— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) March 22, 2018
There is still work to be done on the stadium's surrounding grounds as well as aesthetic touchups to finish. However, UCF's dream of a stadium that is fit to possibly host an NCAA Tournament Regional is all but here.
Catcher Anthony George recalled in January how a new stadium for UCF Baseball was supposed to be finished the same year he committed to the program. He is now in his junior season. The idea of a new stadium has been batted around for the better part of 10 years. Greg Lovelady has been at UCF for just two seasons, but the Knights' head coach is happy that this day has come. Or maybe it's more relief. For as much as he is looking forward to seeing how the new environment helps in recruiting, Lovelady is just as relieved that he doesn't have to talk about the concept of an expanded stadium any longer. It's real now.
"Finally, it's here," he said Thursday. "I'm just excited for it to be over, to be honest with you. Too many ups and downs in this whole process, too many distractions for me personally. Just too many dates changing. ... It just feels like we have a real baseball stadium now. I'm just excited we're not selling drawings anymore; we're selling actually selling a physical building."
“People most definitely will come.”— UCF Baseball (@UCF_Baseball) March 23, 2018
The reign continues tonight ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/ruX0gMHtuq
Top-25 matchup on tap
While the stadium is drawing a lot of buzz from fans, the Knights' focus remains squarely on the field as they prepare for a three-game set versus the 18th-ranked East Carolina Pirates. ECU was picked to run away with the American Athletic Conference last year, but big doses of bad injury luck sent the Pirates to the bottom of the conference. However, ECU is off to a 16-4 start and has rebounded this year in large part due to a top-notch pitching staff that ranks third in the nation in earned run average (2.15). The 20th-ranked Knights (17-6) will have their hands full with ECU's Trey Benton and Chris Holba. Those two right-handers will start on Friday and Saturday, respectively, and have allowed just 10 earned runs and six walks in 62.2 combined innings. Lovelady said he expects the Pirates to be fired up for this weekend's series and looking for payback from 2017.
"I know that they are a very motivated team from what happened last year," Lovelady said. "Not only from the season, but we went in and swept them at their place, so I know that they are going to be wanting revenge."
Sheridan gets his Friday night shot
Of course, UCF's pitching staff is strong in its own right. The Knights sit among the nation's best in a bevy of pitching categories and will put Joe Sheridan, Chris Williams and JJ Montgomery on the mound against the Pirates. All three men are currently carrying sub-2.00 ERAs.
Being a Friday night starter has been a goal of Sheridan's since he came to UCF last year. The Oviedo-raised lefty was the team's most consistent starting pitcher during his freshman season, but most of his outings came on Sundays. This year, he has started on Saturdays and in mid-week games. But as AAC play begins, Sheridan is sitting in the seat reserved for the ace of every staff. Pitching coach Justin Parker said the sophomore has fully earned this chance because of his "second-to-none" work ethic.
"All of the stuff that's behind the scenes, he's the best at it," Parker said of Sheridan. "The work ethic, the things that he does, the detail-oriented way he goes about his business, he's just the guy that we try the most to compete."
Sheridan has thrown 91.1 innings across 17 starts with UCF and possesses a career ERA of 3.02.
First pitch between the Pirates and the Knights is set for 6:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The first pitch on Sunday is scheduled for 1 p.m.