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Q&A with UCF Baseball Coach Greg Lovelady

The Knights’ fourth-year manager expects to lose some players during this week’s MLB Draft. But he also expects a big bat to return in 2021.

UCF Baseball coach Greg Lovelady
Photo: Brian Murphy

It has been nearly three months since the 2020 college baseball season reached a sudden end. But there is still much to discuss with UCF Knights baseball coach Greg Lovelady — and he still has plenty to say.

In a 40-minute conversation with Black and Gold Banneret last week, Lovelady went deep on a number of topics, including the five-round MLB Draft, which began Wednesday, and how he expects it to impact his Knights.

He also talked about the newest Knight, former Jacksonville pitcher A.J. Jones, and he let us know which UCF seniors are and are not returning in 2021.

There was only one subject Lovelady wouldn’t touch: His conversations with Joe Sheridan leading up to the left-hander’s transfer to Notre Dame last month.

“I’ll probably let him answer all those questions just because I don’t know what he wants everyone to know about or what his thought process was,” Lovelady said when asked about Sheridan’s departure. “I don’t want to say anything and misquote him if he doesn’t want anyone to know about it. That’s a personal decision that he made. If he had told me, ‘I don’t care if you talk about it,’ then I would have no problem talking about it. But we didn’t really discuss it.”

This transcript has been edited for clarity and, yes, brevity.

Q: Coach, how are you and your family doing?

Greg Lovelady: The kids are good, everybody’s healthy, so that’s been good. Just trying to get back a sense of normalcy. My oldest (Noah) started playing baseball again two weekends ago, so that gives us something to do. But everybody’s good. We put a pool in the house back in January. That was a godsend just because [the kids] spend most of their days swimming. So, kept them out of trouble and kept us sane.

Q: What have you been doing these past few months that you wouldn’t have had time for during a normal season?

Mostly hang out with my kids. Just with traveling and games and all that, I’ve probably worked with my oldest — playing baseball and playing catch and doing those kinds of things — more than I probably have in his entire life. Just been able to get outside and play catch with them and swim with them. Really, it’s been more family time than anything.

I’ve just been working out, hanging out with the fam and obviously trying to prepare for a lot of different things in terms of staying in touch with the staff and the players and just trying to be ready for anything. There’s just so many rumors out there, so we’re always trying to plan. Before we knew how long the draft was, what were our options and that kind of stuff. Just trying to be prepared for when things did come down the pipeline, we were ready.

Q: Have you been holding Zoom meetings with your players? What has the contact been like between you and them?

GL: Probably until the end of April, we were. In the beginning of May, we were having some meetings, whether it was the whole team or pitchers or hitters. Just kind of debriefing, kind of going over some things. The rest of it since then has really just been checking in individually with guys. Obviously, Nick (Otte) and Ted (Tom) are talking to those guys probably on a more weekly basis. Especially the pitchers, like what they are doing, being able to help them figure out what they need to be doing with what they have available. Some guys have access to more things than others, whether that’s people to throw with or a mound or weights or whatever the case is. So, just trying to keep them on a plan with what they have.

Some guys are getting ready for the draft. Some guys are getting ready for summer ball. Obviously summer ball, once that information kept coming out of what was going on, then we set some timelines for guys so that they are in shape. The last thing we want those guys to do is go out and get hurt.

But just checking in with guys. Making sure them and their families are good. Does anybody need anything? ... Just trying to stay on top of stuff as much as we possibly can and keep in contact with the players. Just make sure that they are doing what they need to do and staying in a good frame of mind.

Q: Does the cancellation of many summer ball leagues put more emphasis on you and your coaches during this time to make sure your players are staying on schedule?

GL: As of right now, there are still a few leagues that are still playing. They are getting ready to start here in Florida (Florida Collegiate Summer League), which is a big one. Right now, the Northwoods League still thinks they are going to go, and the Coastal Plain League still thinks they are going to go. We’ve got most of our guys placed in those one of three leagues and hope that they are going to play.

Obviously, if things start to get cancelled again or those leagues that are still going get cancelled, then we have to come up with a game plan of, OK, how do we get better from that date to whenever the first day of school is? ... If they don’t play, then we’ve got a lot of work to do in the fall and we’ve got to make sure that we’re ready to go. We don’t have the luxury of working our way into the fall; we need to get to work. Hopefully they can play summer ball and we can kind of have a normal fall where guys have been off for a couple of weeks and you just kind of get them back into the flow of things, back into school.

If there is no summer ball, then every day in the fall is important to try to learn and teach and get more reps that you missed over the last five months when they weren’t able to play. Those are the types of things that you’re kind of just playing by ear, and you’ve got to gameplan for each one.

Q: What do you think about the MLB Draft being limited to only five rounds?

GL: Obviously, it sucks for the kids. They work so hard their entire life. These juniors especially, this has kind of been their year. It’s just unfortunate. Obviously, the owners are trying to save money. They are trying to shrink the minor leagues. They are in a quarrel, they’re on different sides: The player development guys want younger talent to be infused into their systems, and the owners want to spend the least amount of money as possible with as much money as they think they might lose. You’re just in a tough situation. Out of our control and it sucks. I feel bad for our kids that have worked so hard. This has been their dream, and this was the year they could make a little bit of money and start their pro careers.

I thought we could have had a chance to have eight or nine guys drafted. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. I don’t know what that number is going to be. I think we’ll end up losing one or two guys, whether that’s through the draft or through free agency.

A lot of kids, they are just kind of getting punched in the gut a little bit. They just work their entire lives, especially the last three years, to put themselves in a good situation to get drafted and to chase their dreams of playing Major League Baseball. Obviously, Major League Baseball is going to be changing a lot, just with less minor leaguers and just with how things are going to happen ... It’s not going to be the same as what it has been for the last 10 years or 20 years or forever. It sucks for those kids.

Q: Following up on something you just said, do you expect a non-senior from your team to go pro?

GL: Yeah, I think there will be. I think we’ll lose one or two of those guys. Between (Jeffrey) Hakanson, (Jack) Sinclair, (Trevor) Holloway, (Dalton) Wingo. And maybe Colton Gordon, too.

I think the hard thing about this draft is not knowing. ... What is this draft going to be? A lot of high school kids didn’t get a lot of looks during their scouting opportunities. So, is it going to be college-driven because there is a lot of video on college kids with some of the programs that we all use, like Synergy and stuff like that? Obviously, having years of being able to watch these kids, summer ball. They have access to a lot more numbers, like TrackMan, FlightScope, analytical data, spin rates and all that kind of stuff. They have way more of that for college kids than they do high school kids,

So, are they going to go away from more high school kids? Are they going to [save bonus pool money] in the fourth and fifth rounds and try to overpay some other kids early? Are they going to take just the five most-talented players they have on their draft board just to try to infuse talent? Are they going to try to go with five high school kids to try to get younger? We don’t know what will be the philosophy of this draft. We know what the 40-round draft is with the 10-round slot money; we know that seniors go late to save money. We know that is the philosophy that everybody takes. In this draft, we don’t know what the philosophy is.

On a weekly basis, I probably talk to 10 agents and 10 guys in professional baseball, whether it’s scouts or scouting directors or crosscheckers or whatnot. I get a wide array of different answers of “I think it’s going to be this” or “I think it’s going to be that.” Asking about our players, and one guy will be like, “Yeah, he’s definitely going.” One guy will be like, “Ehh, I don’t know.” It’s just really hard to get a grasp of what this is going to be.

It’s hard to plan because we just don’t have a really great sense of what’s going to happen in the draft. If they just take all college guys, we might lose two or three guys. If they take more high school guys, we might only lose one.

But [The limited draft] is good because there is going to be an influx of talent into college baseball no matter what. Whether that’s guys returning or whether that’s high school kids coming to school, college baseball is going to be a lot different in the next couple years.

Q: Is there any update on seniors Jordan Rathbone and Jaylyn Whitehead and their place on the 2021 roster?

GL: Danny [White] has been awesome, and he’s going to allow all the seniors to come back if they want to. They’ll find ways to make sure every senior gets another opportunity to go at this. All of our seniors were afforded the opportunity to come back.

Jordan Rathbone, I guess it’s nothing official yet, but my expectation is that Jordan is going to be back. I feel really confident. I don’t know what the percentage is, but it’s probably close to 100% that Jordan will be back with us next year. He is the only one that I think will end up coming back.*

Jaylyn actually took a job with a financial institution, which was kind of already in the works before the whole season got cancelled. He had already interviewed two or three times before the season got cancelled. And then a week and a half after the season got shut down, he had his final interview where I know he got a job offer. ... We went back and forth, but at the end of the day, I think him moving forward with his life and just having an opportunity in something that he really, really wanted to do in the profession that he really, really wanted to be in was just too great for him to pass up.

*Black and Gold Banneret reported last month that the Knights’ two other seniors from the 2020 team — pitchers Zack Helsel and Chad Luensmann — would not be returning.

Q: What do you think about the proposed changes to the college baseball calendar from a panel of power-conference coaches?

GL: I’m kind of on the fence. I’m 50-50 about it. I haven’t done a ton of research. I just don’t really know. Obviously, spending 12 years in Ohio and seeing what some of those rivalries are like, especially in the Big Ten, there’s no doubt in my mind that Ohio State-Michigan is going to get way more fans if it’s 70 degrees than if it’s 30 degrees. To me, that makes a ton of sense. I also know that the northern schools have to travel a lot early in the year because of the weather. I think that would save some money for those northern schools in terms of traveling, having to go on the road, having to come down to Florida and all that kind of stuff. If you bump the season back three or four weeks, most of those schools start to try to host games those weeks.

For us, the weather, rain-wise, gets worse as we get into June. And if less teams are traveling from up north in those first couple of weekends, do we have to travel more? I don’t know. Attendance-wise ... I see some growth in attendance as you get later in the year, but most of the time, that’s when teams are just really good. I think that our attendance would have skyrocketed (later this year). ... I don’t know if that has anything to do with the weather. Never did I say, “Man, the weather at night is really killing our crowd.” I never said here. It’s too beautiful; it’s not 30 degrees at night. So, I don’t know how much it helps us down here.

Part of me thinks it might be better for the college game in general. Part of me thinks it may be just good for the Big Ten and it doesn’t change anything. And if I’m going to have to keep kids here for another month, I’ve got to pay for them to stay here. So, if we’re traveling more, now my budget is going to actually go up.

I want to do what’s best for college baseball. I don’t want to do what’s best for the Big Ten, but if it’s better for college baseball, then I’m all about it. If our budget has to go up a little bit for all those other schools to go down a little bit to kind of even it out, I can understand that.

I probably need to get on the horn and kind of see what people’s thought processes are, if they’re seeing things differently than I am and get a more concrete view, positively or negatively, for my own self. I see some positives, but I also see negatives.

Q: Do you see Jacksonville grad transfer A.J. Jones as someone can fill the void left by Joe Sheridan?

GL: Yeah, that’s why we went after him. Just losing Jaylyn and Joe, we weren’t really in the market for a grad transfer until those two guys kind of were nos. I think in a normal year, we probably wouldn’t have cared as much. Normally, we’re going to lose a bunch of guys, but everyone is losing a bunch of guys. They are all in the same boat. Now, we were a little bit concerned like, “Hey, man, a lot of people are getting a lot of guys back.” So, you want a little bit more experience this year, where there is going to be a lot of experience. You don’t want to get behind in terms of having that talent and the experience that everybody else has.

We felt like: Do you want to risk hoping that a guy develops or a freshman comes in and performs, or do you just want to have kind of a comfort in terms of having somebody that’s been in a weekend rotation? Obviously, we got to see him; he pitched against us. We knew exactly what we were getting.

I just think he gave us some experience to kind of replace some of those guys. Obviously not knowing what the draft is going to be like, but with Colton and Trevor and Hunter (Patteson), we feel like we have three really, really talented Friday night guys. If Colton or Trevor leave, that opens up the door for guys like (Zack) Hunsicker and A.J., and we have some other guys. Maybe (David) Litchfield can switch to a starter’s role, stuff like that. Some of the freshmen that we have — Nick Vieira or (Zachary) Bennett — those guys can come in and compete for those kinds of jobs. Guys that are returning — Keegan Pulford-Thorpe, who’s made a bunch of strides. It just gives us some more options and gives us some more depth. But having A.J. gave us experience and not a question mark.

Q: Lastly, this country is having a very important moment right now, which has included large public protests against racism and racial inequality every day recently. Just as a coach in this moment, what kind of discussions have you had with your players about those topics and what have those dialogues been like?

GL: I think it’s something that I try to incorporate all year long, not just about race but just about treating everyone the right way. I think you are always trying to constantly teach, and it’s not always about baseball. I think a big part of our program is teaching things that are outside of our baseball world. I think you’re constantly trying to make sure the kids are acting a certain way. You’re trying to give back to the community, to understand and to do different things that are going to get you around different types of people, understanding that we’re all the same. However we look or whatever god we believe in or whatever the case is, we’re all the same. We’re all humans. We have guys (on the team) that aren’t from America, but they are here and they are all the same. We all deserve the same rights and liberties, and we all deserve to be treated the same way.

I think you are constantly trying to do that all the time. Obviously, now you’re just trying to reinforce that and make sure that people understand that you have to be sensitive and listen to people that have had to go through a lot of this stuff and people that have to live with this. I think it’s good that you have some different backgrounds on teams. Hopefully they are all having conversations of what they had to endure or had to go through growing up, whatever country they have come from or whatever background they come from. Hopefully they can have conversations, have that freedom and feel comfortable to be vulnerable and talk about some of the things that they’ve seen. You’re just trying to make sure that everybody is open, listening, understanding and sympathetic to everyone, not just on our team.

I think Danny has done a great job of always — like with the nutrition center, trying to get athletes to commingle because you want to be friends and listen with all the athletes, because they have all come from different backgrounds. They have all come from different things in their lives. You want people to be able to interact and learn from each other and understand. But also be around and be open and learn that, again, we’re all the same. It doesn’t matter what you look like or the color of your skin, but you also have to understand the things that people have gone through and that they are going through. There are issues out there that need to be handled, and you need to be supportive and try to be part of the solution. Not from the outside, but try to get on to the inside.

I hope and pray that the younger generation is much more open and able to hopefully change the world in a positive way. Hopefully, as coaches and administrators, we’re trying to foster an environment that allows for that to happen. I think in the fall when we come back and we’re in-person, I think that we all just need to do a better job of making sure that we are allowing that environment. Whether that’s having conversations, allowing people to be open, or discuss things and bring people that are much more educated in to talk about it or can bring a different perspective, I think we all will probably do a better job of that.

And I don’t know if talk is enough. Like, what kind of actions can we bring to the table to help foster those environments and to try to better the world and to rid our country of racism?