Recruit. Signee. Freshman. Supporting player. Friday night starter and team leader. It’s a common cycle in college baseball, one that UCF senior Robby Howell embraces.
After two seasons of transitioning, the right-handed pitcher from Fort White, Fla. broke out in his 2016 junior season before permanently becoming the Knights’ Friday night starter. In 2017, his senior season, he is continuing to leave his mark as a leader on and off the field for UCF.
Howell admits that there was a certain adjustment period coming into this season, but it helped him grow. The extensive group of seniors around him was a comforting presence as he eased into his expanded role as a leader. Now, he’s one of the driving forces behind the Knights’ 2017 resurgence.
“It definitely means a lot. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment with a new coaching staff,” he said. “[But] it’s been incredible for me personally.”
With the arrival of former Miami catcher Greg Lovelady as the team’s head coach last fall came some question marks, but Howell’s work ethic wasn’t one of them.
“It’s been very consistent. You want your leaders to be your hardest workers. He goes out and competes like crazy every week,” Lovelady said. “That’s one of the biggest things we’ve been trying to preach. To have a guy on Friday night that’s able to do that is really important.”
When he came to Orlando, Lovelady was aware of the impressive numbers that Howell posted last season. However, he knew there were some adjustments to make and areas of his game that could use some improvement. For Howell, it was just a new challenge to welcome.
The new coaching staff ushered in new programs regarding nutrition and workouts and Howell dropped nearly 35 pounds. He put in the work, knowing he wanted to build on his 2016 campaign, one that saw him lead the American Athletic Conference in ERA.
The 6-foot-4-inch Howell is driven by his small-town roots. Growing up in Fort White, which is populated by fewer than 1,000 people, he knew he wanted to make something of himself someday. His graduating class at Fort White High School consisted of 83 students. So for someone that grew up in such a small town, why play college ball at a school that has an enrollment more than 65 times the size of his hometown?
“I had always kind of wanted to go to school here,” he said. “When I came down here for my visit, I fell in love with the campus and everything.”
Howell wanted to get out of Fort White and discover things on his own, but the short two-and-a-half-hour trip home is still important to him. He can make it home to his family for holidays and his parents can come see him pitch at UCF every weekend.
His small-town upbringing and family life certainly help him as a teammate. As he builds his own legacy at UCF, he’s helping others along. Whether it’s directly through words or subtly through his actions and hard work, Howell has been an exemplary teammate over the years.
“Robby is definitely 100 percent a team guy. He’ll do whatever it takes for the team to win,” junior catcher Logan Heiser said. “Even when he’s not pitching or say he’s had a bad game, he’ll come into the dugout and make sure we have energy, making sure everyone is still focused on the game no matter how [it’s] going.”
Freshman pitcher Joe Sheridan, who assumed the Sunday starter role early on this season, is someone who Howell says is beyond his years. But if you ask Sheridan, part of that can be attributed to the relationship he built with Howell.
“You can just see how comfortable he is on the mound. That just comes with experience and being around the game a lot,” Sheridan said. “Being around him, I’m trying to see if I can speed up the process and gain some of that experience through him in a faster way.”
For the early part of 2017, there was a whole lot of winning for the Knights. They got off to a 17-3 start and, despite their recent slump, could find their way into a regional for the first time since 2012. Howell has been a big part of that, posting a 5-0 record with a 3.31 ERA in 51 2/3 innings of work. Opponents are hitting just .239 against him.
Setting the tone for a strong series is something that Howell is tasked with doing every weekend. Lovelady has no problem turning to the senior since he embodies the competitive example the coaching staff wants to set.
“It seems like when he pitches well on Friday, we pitch really well the entire weekend,” Lovelady said. “That’s why it’s so important to have a hard worker and somebody you can trust to throw on Friday nights.”
Howell works as a catalyst for the team, which is why the Knights will ride him as their ace throughout the rest of the season as they look to finish conference play on a strong note. Right now, Howell’s favorite memory at UCF is his first victory as a freshman. But he says that will quickly change if his team plays its way into a regional this summer.
Regardless of the end result of the season, he doesn’t want to only be remembered by his career numbers.
“I really just want to be known as a competitor, a winner and a leader,” he said.
That legacy feels like it’s already been written. With at least six starts left in his UCF career, he has a chance to not only cement that legacy, but to extend it. He wanted to get out of Fort White so he could make something of himself. In four years at UCF, he already has.
Bailey Adams is a contributor for the Central Florida Focus. You can follow him on Twitter at @BaileyJAdams22 and you can email the sports team at EvanA@centralfloridafocus.com.