ORLANDO, Fla. – After falling to Auburn in game one of the NCAA regional tournament, the University of Central Florida Knights needed a win against an old nemesis from earlier in the 2017 season.
But the Florida State University Seminoles eliminated the Knights with a 6-1 Saturday afternoon at Dick Howser Stadium in Tallahassee, Florida.
The Knights' best season since 2012, were named the 2017 American Athletic Conference co-regular season champions and finishing with a 40-22 overall record. UCF gave first-year head coach Greg Lovelady something to be happy about despite the early tournament elimination.
"I thanked the seniors and told them how much I loved them," Lovelady told UCFKnights.com in a postgame news conference after Saturday's loss, trying to hold back tears. "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."
The Knights finished 2017 with a 15-9 conference record, going 29-10 at home and 10-10 on the road. Before participating in the NCAA regional tournament, the Knights saw some success in the AAC postseason tournament. Before being eliminated in the semifinals by East Carolina University, the Knights were able to eliminate their War On I-4 rival, the University of South Florida, which UCF also beat to claim the regular-season title.
Expected to finish last in the conference this year after a troubled 2016 season, the Knights used a strong senior class as well as the younger players. Supported by the big bats of redshirt sophomore Kyle Marsh and freshman Rylan Thomas, the Knights saw success on the mound from senior right-handed pitcher Robby Howell and freshman left-handed pitcher Joe Sheridan.
Marsh finished the 2017 season with a .307 average, driving in 52 RBIs with six home runs and 30 extra-base hits. The only player to drive in more runs was Thomas, who drove in 53, supported by his team-best 14 home runs and a .530 slugging percentage. Thomas finished with a .303 average. Senior Eli Putnam had the best average with a .315 and drove 78 balls for hits, another team best. The Knights stole 106 bases out of 122 attempts.
Opposite the plate, the Knights also had success from the rubber. Howell and Sheridan both had 10 wins, with Howell's first loss coming in the regional tournament. Redshirt junior Jason Bahr led the team with 98 strikeouts, with Howell not far behind with 94. As a staff, the team had a 3.00 ERA, struck out a total of 553 batters, walked 202, gave up only 186 earned runs and allowed their opponents' batting average to reach only .230.
"I'm really proud of this group of kids," Lovelady said in a story on UCFKnights.com. "I told (the team) when I first met with them that this is your journey, and this is your program. I'm really proud of the seniors and the older guys, who set forth on the mission."