2021 NCAA Top 25 Preview: No. 24 Central Florida

Image credit: (Photo by Mike Janes/Four Seam)

Last season: 15-3
Final ranking: No. 15
Coach (record at school): Greg Lovelady (126-68, four years)

Top 200 draft prospects: None

The good news: By rushing out to a 15-3 start in 2020, including a sweep of Auburn on the road, Central Florida looked like the team to beat in the American Athletic Conference, and it returns all but one lineup regular, outfielder Dalton Wingo, from that team. That includes the team’s top hitter in fourth-year junior first baseman Nick Romano (.315/.373/.389), the top basestealing threat in third-year sophomore center fielder Gephry Pena (.314/.415/.429), who tied for second in the country in steals last season with 13, and sixth-year senior right fielder Jordan Rathbone (.313/.382/.507), who tied for the team lead in home runs with three and led the team with 17 RBIs. A trio of players who were freshmen in 2020 in second baseman Matt Archer (.291/.328/.364), shortstop Andrew Brait (.226/.368/.226) and left fielder Pablo Ruiz (.275/.302/.490) acquitted themselves nicely in their debuts and could be ready to make the typical freshman to sophomore leap.

The bad news: It’s still a very talented group, thanks in large part to the arrival of graduate transfers in Southern Illinois-Edwardsville’s Kenny Serwa (4-0, 1.33) and Jacksonville’s AJ Jones (1-1, 5.64), but the pitching staff has undergone some renovations since the end of last season. Closer Jeffrey Hakanson was drafted in the fifth round. Righthander Trevor Holloway signed as a nondrafted free agent. Veteran lefthander Joe Sheridan transferred to Notre Dame. Swingman Jaylyn Whitehead matriculated out of the program. Still, lefthander Colton Gordon (2-0, 2.35) returns to front the rotation, Serwa was arguably the best pitcher in the Ohio Valley Conference last season, and the bullpen duo of fifth-year junior righthander David Litchfield and fourth-year junior righthander Jack Sinclair will ensure that closing games isn’t an issue, but it does mean that UCF is asking a number of pitchers to step up in a year when it’s not asking the same of an experienced lineup. 

Player to know: Kenny Serwa, RHP.

Serwa quietly put up a dominant season in 2020 at SIUE, going 4-0 with a 1.33 ERA and 42 strikeouts over 27 innings. And it’s not just a matter of a small conference pitcher overwhelming lesser talent, as his stuff is plenty good, including a fastball that sits in the low 90s. Nagging injuries were an issue for Serwa off and on in his time at SIUE, but he’s always been effective when he’s been healthy, and over time, he turned himself into a legitimate draft prospect who would have been selected last summer had the draft not been shortened to five rounds. It’s a step up in competition, but Serwa proving to be a co-ace alongside Colton Gordon would go a long way toward giving UCF the type of rotation needed to repeat its 2020 success. 

Path to Omaha: The UCF lineup is precisely the kind of multifaceted attack that you want in order to ward off prolonged slumps. It has power with guys like Rathbone, Ruiz and third-year sophomore DH Tom Josten. It has speed with Pena and Ruiz. It has guys with excellent bat-to-ball skills like Romano. And defensively, led by Brait at shortstop and third-year sophomore catcher Ben McCabe, it should be sound. The question, and the likely key to the Knights being Omaha-level good, is whether the pitching staff is simply serviceable or if it can develop into the type of staff that can go toe-to-toe with the best staffs in the country in the postseason.

2021 Lineup
C Ben McCabe, R-So. .304 .385 .500 46 2 6
1B Nick Romano, R-Jr. .315 .373 .389 54 0 9
2B Matt Archer, R-Fr. .291 .328 .364 55 1 10
3B Alex Freeland, Fr. HS — Cape Coral, Fla.
SS Andrew Brait, R-Fr. .226 .368 .226 31 0 3
LF Pablo Ruiz, R-Fr. .275 .302 .490 51 3 7
CF Gephry Pena, R-So. .314 .415 .429 70 1 9
RF Jordan Rathbone, R-Sr. .313 .382 .507 67 3 17
DH Tom Josten, R-So. .196 .366 .429 56 3 10
LHP Colton Gordon, R-So. 2 0 2.35 23 24 0
RHP Kenny Serwa, R-So. Transfer — Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
RHP AJ Jones, R-Sr. Transfer — Jacksonville
RP David Litchfield, R-Jr. 2 0 0.73 12 9 0
RP Jack Sinclair, R-Jr. 4 0 1.35 13 20 0

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