Updated: Dec 13, 2020
In the shortened 2020 season, few teams can claim a bigger statement series win than UCF. The Knights traveled to Plainsman Park and swept Auburn in dominant fashion, outscoring the Tigers 22-6 in three games. The sweep marked the first time Auburn Baseball had been swept at home in a non-conference series in their 116 year history and launched the Knights into the top 25 before they ultimately rose to number 11 in the final rankings from 2020.
But 2020 is history and the 2021 season is nearly upon us. Does UCF Head Coach Greg Lovelady buy into the idea of momentum? Not necessarily. “I believe in confidence.” Lovelady told College Baseball Nation. “[Sweeping Auburn] gave our guys a lot of confidence. They could say ‘hey, I just did that against a first-rounder.’” The Knights scored three runs in 5.1 innings against Tanner Burns, the 36th pick in the 2020 MLB Draft.
Looking ahead to 2021, UCF returns most of their 2020 roster with a few notable exceptions. Two right-handed pitchers, Jeff Hakanson and Trevor Holloway, have moved on to professional baseball. Hakanson finished the 2020 season tied for the most saves in the country (6) and was drafted in the fifth round by the Tampa Bay Rays. “Losing Hakanson is huge,” said Lovelady. “He was the best closer in the country. We need guys to step up.”
To that end, UCF brings in 12 new players to the 2021 roster, including two graduate transfers. SIU Edwardsville alumnus Kenny Serwa brings experience to the pitching staff. “He’s been that Friday night guy,” Lovelady relayed. Serwa was 4-0 at SIU-Edwardsville with a 1.33 ERA in 27 innings as the top arm.
“If you want to be great, you have to go out and prove it every single day.” -Greg Lovelady, UCF Head Coach
Two younger arms have also impressed this fall. Lovelady identified Nolan Lepkoske and Hunter Patteson as guys whose raw stuff suggests weekend rotation. Ultimately, Lovelady is looking for ten reliable arms in 2021 as pitching depth may play an even greater role in 2021 if weekend series move to four games.
UCF returns four starters who hit over .300 in 2020 from an offense that hit .278 as a team, and Lovelady thinks the 2021 offense has the potential to be even better. “Each game, one or two guys stepped up, but we didn’t feel like we had hit our stride.”
Lovelady identified 1B Nick Romano as the best hitter from the fall and noted production from OF Gephry Pena. Said Lovelady of Pena, “he’s a super athlete and an unbelievable kid.” Pena hit .314 and stole 13 bases in 18 games for the Knights in 2020.
“I truly believed this team had the ability to make a College World Series run, and it felt like that was stripped from us out of nowhere." Jordan Rathbone, Senior UCF
Jordan Rathbone is a second-time senior in 2021 and will play a key leadership role for the squad. After batting a lackluster .190 in 2019, Rathbone hit .313 with three homeruns for the Knights in 2020. Lovelady commended Rathbone for his huge improvement. “Heading into last year, he was a different person in terms of taking care of business.”
Rathbone announced he would return for another year with an emphatic statement:
“I truly believed this team had the ability to make a College World Series run, and it felt like that was stripped from us out of nowhere. We were all hurt by this, but at the end of the day we all know we still have the chance to be that team that puts UCF on the map and get the respect we deserve. I want to be part of that more than anything, I want to be able to look back on my college experience and know I helped lead the Knights to a historic season.”
What are Lovelady’s goals for UCF 2021? “Omaha gets talked about more and more from the guys. We want to be hosting and winning Regionals.”
The Knights enter 2021 at number 25 in College Baseball Nation’s Fall Top 25.