The 2016-17 athletic year has seen a lot of debuts at UCF. This Friday night will bring another one, as new head baseball coach Greg Lovelady will start his tenure with the Knights.
“This is always an exciting week,” Lovelady said at Tuesday’s media day. “I think we’re definitely sick of playing each other. We’re definitely excited to see somebody else in the opposing dugout and in another uniform.”
When the team opens up its 2017 season on Friday against Siena, it will have a much looser feel. In recent years, the team played uptight and struggled to play with consistent energy as the season went on. With a new staff in place, things have already changed.
“We have a whole new energy around the clubhouse. It’s nothing I’ve seen before,” senior outfielder Luke Hamblin said. “Last year we played a little tight, but now everyone is loose and not afraid to make mistakes.”
The energy and loose atmosphere is just part of the program’s changes. Players talked about having the ability to be themselves this season, expressing their individuality while growing together as a team.
“I want the kids to have fun and relax and not feel like it’s too stuffy here,” Lovelady said. “I feel like that allows them to play more free and in the end, get better.”
Senior infielder Kam Gellinger is taking full advantage of the newfound freedom, sporting a bushy beard that he said he won’t shave until after the season.
“When [coach Lovelady] got here, I was like ‘I’ve got one question for you: are we allowed to have facial hair?’” Gellinger said. “And he was like ‘yup.’ I was like ‘alright, we’re good to go now.’”
The new atmosphere around the program has been a direct result of Lovelady’s personality. The 38-year-old head coach, who frequently walks around practice with no shoes on, came to Orlando from Wright State in Ohio. During three seasons with the Raiders, he put together a 124-56 record, making a regional tournament appearance twice. In 2014 and 2016, he was named the Horizon League Coach of the Year.
Along with all of that success, he has brought a new nutrition system to the UCF program. Lovelady talked at length about the players buying into the system and new culture. Senior pitcher Robby Howell, who finished last year 7-4 with a 1.96 ERA, said he has lost almost 35 pounds since the end of last season.
“The body transformations with guys has been incredible,” Howell said. “You can see it across the board, across our team.”
Howell will be one of the team’s biggest leaders this spring. He, along with fellow senior right-hander Juan Pimentel, will be at the forefront of the Knights’ pitching staff. In terms of run production, UCF will look for production up and down the lineup. Seniors Brennan Bozeman and Austin Griffin will likely be relied upon as two of the team’s bigger bats. Bozeman led the Knights with a .299 average last year, while Griffin finished a team-high 10 home runs.
Griffin will see time at first base, but so will others such as freshman Rylan Thomas and redshirt sophomore Kyle Marsh. Along with Bozeman and Gellinger, the rest of the infield will consist of senior Ryan Crile and sophomore Matthew Mika. In the outfield, UCF will have solid experience. Hamblin and fellow senior Eli Putnam, as well as juniors Josh Moser, Austin Murphy and Bryce Peterson could all see significant time.
“I think we’re going to put pressure on people,” Lovelady said. “One through nine we’re going to be able to do different things, so we’re really excited for this group.”
Some big opponents will come to Jay Bergman Field this season, including 2016 regional tournament teams. Those include Florida (March 1), Florida State (March 7-8), Stetson (April 5), Florida Atlantic (April 11), Bethune-Cookman (April 18) and UConn (April 21-23). The War On I-4 rivalry series will continue throughout the season, with UCF visiting USF April 7-9. The Knights will then close the season May 18-20 against the Bulls.
UCF plays its first 34 games in the state of Florida, including 18 of its first 19 at home.
“Hopefully in those close ball games, the fans will be on our side and kind of help put us over the edge and get us some wins,” Lovelady said.
First pitch for Friday’s season opener is set for 6:30 p.m.
Bailey Adams is a contributor for the Central Florida Focus. You can follow him on Twitter at @BaileyJAdams22 and email the sports team at EvanA@centralfloridafocus.com.