UCF prepares for matchup against NCAA player of the year

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L - Courtesy of Missouri State Athletics; R- Mary Stevens / Valencia Voice

Nick Petree (Left) and Ben Lively (Right) will look to get their team's started on the right foot with a win Friday afternoon.

By Mary Stevens & Bryan Levine

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — The UCF baseball team knew it was preparing to face a pitcher who posted one of the most dominant seasons in NCAA history, but did the players and coaches expect to begin the regional tournament against the Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year?

Missouri State pitcher Nick Petree became the first MSU player to win national player-of-the-year honors, joining major-leaguers Stephen Strasburg, Todd Helton and Robin Ventura.

“It means a lot, but probably not as much as winning here at the regional will mean to us as a team. I feel like we still have a lot of work to do,” said Petree after the award was announced today (May 31).

Petree’s statistics are “video game-esque,” according to fellow Bears pitcher Pierce Johnson. Petree, a sophomore, has thrown 107-1/3 innings this season, struck out 109 batters and surrendered 11 earned runs. His 0.92 earned-run average is tops in the nation, and, over one stretch during the season, Petree went 73 consecutive innings without surrendering an earned run.

“Nick Petree is the Greg Maddux of college baseball,” said MSU head coach Keith Guttin, referencing the four-time Cy Young Award winner and eight-time Major League Baseball all-star.

The stage is set and the stakes are high as UCF and MSU will kick off the Coral Gables regional at the University of Miami on Friday (June 1) at 2 p.m.

UCF head coach Terry Rooney announced earlier in the week that Ben Lively would be the Knights’ starting pitcher for Friday’s game.

While overshadowed by Petree’s success this season, Lively has compiled quite a résumé of his own. With a 9-2 record on the season, Lively has 3.23. era, and has struck out 78 batters in 75-1/3 innings pitched.

“Ben has pitched very well for us throughout the year,” said Rooney. “I said at the beginning of the year that one of the keys of the success of our season was the development of Ben Lively. And Ben has developed.

The UCF hitters will have their work cut out for them Friday afternoon. The Knights have struggled against pitchers within Conference USA, but have not faced a pitcher like Petree.

The UCF pitching staff is compiled of unique characters, one of them being closer Joe Rogers.The lefty from Winter Haven, Fla., notched a career-high 12 saves, along with a 1.60 ERA and 45 strikeouts to solidify the back end of the UCF bullpen in 2012.

Rogers and most of his teammates are playing in a regional for the second consecutive season – the first time UCF has made back-to-back NCAA appearances since 2001-02.

“Last year, you know, we played at Florida State and they have a really good atmosphere for baseball so I think a lot of the guys who played on last years’ team kind of know going in what we are going to get out of the atmosphere. You know Miami has a good atmosphere as well,” said Rogers. “These are three competitive teams. I think that has helped everyone kind of get prepared for what is coming and you know that you are not going to get surprised by anything. We have put in the work and stuff like that so I think we will be good to go.”

The Knights have won two games over the last three seasons in Coral Gables, including a win earlier this season.

“It definitely means a lot to me [playing in Miami]. Family and friends, they try to come up to Orlando as much as possible but to be back at home, a couple of minutes away from my home exactly, it feels good just to see familiar faces in the stands, even to play against familiar faces that I played against all through high school and through travel ball,” said UCF short stop Darnell Sweeney.

Statistically, the Coral Gables regional is the toughest in the nation with an average RPI of 38.75. UM and Stony Brook (N.Y.) University are the other two entrants in the region.

“I think when you look at it from an RPI standpoint it might be the toughest regional statistically speaking,” said Rooney. “We have a tremendous amount of respect for all of the opponents in this field.”

This double-elimination regional will begin Friday afternoon with the matchup between the Knights and Bears, followed by Stony Brook taking on host Miami, at 7 p.m. The losers of Friday’s matchups will face-off at 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by the winners’ game at 7 p.m.