ORLANDO, Fla. – In his first year at the University of Central Florida, new athletic director Danny White has helped turn recently struggling teams into competitive squads. It began with UCF football head coach Scott Frost, who took a squad that had finished 2015 with an 0-12 record to a 6-7 season and a bowl berth. Then came the men’s and women’s basketball programs—led by Johnny Dawkins and Katie Abrahamson-Henderson, respectively—which have already posted better records than each of their past three seasons.
Now it’s baseball’s turn to shine and rise to prominence once again. Last season, the Knights finished 25-34, including 8-16 in the American Athletic Conference. It was only a little more than two years ago when UCF was ranked No. 6 in the Baseball America Top 25, the highest ranking ever garnered in the school’s history, according to a report by the Orlando Sentinel‘s Iliana Limón Romero.
For first-year UCF head coach Greg Lovelady, though, there’s no pressure. As has become very popular with the Philadelphia 76ers of the National Basketball Association, Lovelady is trusting the process.
“I’m not a big pressure guy. I understand that there’s a process to all this,” Lovelady said before the team’s first practice Friday. “My process might be different than Scott’s or than Johnny’s or Katie’s, so I just can’t compare myself to them… But I’ve definitely seen them in the back of my mind. I know that there’s an expectation here for this program.
“But that’s part of the reason why I came here. So that didn’t change with the way that those coaches have done such a great job. I mean, I got high expectations for the program myself.”
But if Lovelady’s identical pedigree is any indication of how his team will do in the upcoming season, UCF baseball fans might have something to cheer about. Lovelady won two national championships as a Miami Hurricane in 1999 and 2001. Likewise, Frost won a share of the national championship in 1997 for the Nebraska Cornhuskers while Dawkins and Abrahamson-Henderson went deep in their respective tournaments.
Even with his knack for winning, Lovelady has maintained a certain level of humility and discipline.
“We talk about trying to do ordinary thins with extraordinary preciseness and doing that daily, knowing that those things are important,” Lovelady said. “And if you care about the kids, and you care about the little things, and you care about the process, I honestly believe that the winning happens… So, we’ll go out every day, try to get better and make sure that we’re the best possible team that we can and may and really let the wins and losses fall where they may.”
The impact Lovelady is having was almost immediate. For senior right-handed pitcher Robby Howell, he noticed an instant culture change.
“These guys came in and took us under their wing like they had known us for years,” Howell said before the team’s first practice Friday. “It’s a lot of fun. These guys, you know, they keep it light around here. And just the whole culture has changed. And it’s a lot of fun.
“I really enjoy being out here.”
Like Lovelady, Howell admires the success of the other sports teams but isn’t concerned about the pressure that may or may not carry over. For him, it’s about having his own team’s success.
“For me, I wouldn’t say it’s pressure, to be honest,” Howell said. “There’s a lot of excitement around here. Just seeing what the other programs are doing with new coaches and everything, it’s a lot of excitement for me and for this team here ‘cus a lot of guys are returning. We got a lot of seniors on this team that we want the revitalization of this program, for sure.”
As for what Howell is bringing to the upcoming season, it’s more so about what he’s not. The Fort White, Fla., native lost about 35 pounds over the offseason, weighing in at about 218 pounds now. Howell, perhaps UCF’s best pitcher, said he simply feels healthier.
“I just wanted to make sure that this year I was able to stay a little bit more healthy than last year,” he said. “[It was] kinda hard to recover at times last year, just being a little bit heavier. And just losing a little bit of weight helped me be a little bit more athletic and obviously recover a lot faster ‘cus I’m healthier.”
Speaking of getting healthier, UCF’s lineup will see the return of pitcher Kyle Marsh. The redshirt sophomore sat out all of the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in September 2015. Marsh, who started all 49 of his appearances, hitting 0.299 with 37 RBIs and five homers in his freshman year, said he feels stronger than before.
“I think I came back a lot stronger and better than I was before,” Marsh said before the team’s first practice Friday. “I think the surgery really helped me. Like I said, getting in the weight room, doing all my arm care and everything.”
While he wasn’t able to play, Marsh still made good use of his time during games. For him, sitting in the dugout allowed him to see the game from a more mental approach.
“I think sitting in the dugout and watching every game and just learning from my teammates, like, just the attitudes after like a bad at-bat or a bad inning,” he said. “Learning the game like that, the mental side of it, really helped me.”
And with the 2017 season and all of its extra baggage approaching, the mental approach is almost as important as the physical one. For Marsh, it’s just a one-day-at-a-time approach.
“We take it one day at a time, but I think this team has a lot of potential,” Marsh said. “And I think that we could go far this year if we put our minds to it. But it’ll be a fun yea, I know that, and we just gotta work really hard and come out with all the new coaches and stuff like that. So, I think we have a really good chance.
“We just gotta come out and show everybody.”
The Knights will open their season with a three-game home series against Siena College, beginning with Game 1 on Friday, Feb. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at Jay Bergman Field. For the team’s full schedule, click here.