UCF Shows Upside With Series Win At No. 1 Ole Miss

Image credit: Central Florida coach Greg Lovelady has led teams to three NCAA Tournament berths in the last five years.

Facing No. 1 Mississippi on the road at Swayze Field, Central Florida never appeared overmatched. Not at the plate against veteran starters Doug Nikhazy or Gunnar Hoglund. Not on the mound against the potent bats of Tim Elko and Jacob Gonzalez. And certainly not after a gut check in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader, when Ole Miss scored three runs in the ninth inning to walk off with a 6-5 victory that evened the series.

Following that disappointment, UCF regrouped in time for the nightcap. In the rubber game, the Knights bounced back for a 7-2 victory that also secured the series win.

It was just the latest success under coach Greg Lovelady for UCF on a big stage. It has won six of its last seven games against SEC opponents, a stretch that also includes a sweep at Auburn in 2020. In 2018, UCF upset top-ranked Florida in a home-and-home midweek series.

This weekend at Ole Miss, however, took it to another level. This was the No. 1 team, on the road, on the weekend with their best pitchers going. And the Knights were up to the challenge.

It all started on the mound. They held the Rebels to 10 runs, issued just six walks and struck out 29 batters over three games. Their starting rotation of lefthanders Colton Gordon and Hunter Patterson and righthander A.J. Jones combined to post a 2.50 ERA over 18 innings.

Gordon was especially strong Friday night. The UCF ace outdueled Nikhazy, a 2019 USA Baseball Collegiate National Team member, and held the Rebels to one run on six hits and a walk in seven innings. He has been outstanding in the two biggest starts of his UCF career – Friday at Ole Miss and last year at Auburn. Against SEC competition, he has struck out 13 batters, held hitters to two runs on 10 hits and two walks in 13 innings. Most importantly, UCF has won both games.

Patterson kept UCF in Game 1 of the doubleheader, holding Ole Miss to three runs in five innings, while striking out seven batters. Jones was excellent in the nightcap as he struck out 10 batters in six innings and gave up one run on four hits and two walks.

It was quite the turnaround for UCF. It came into the series against Ole Miss with a 9.26 ERA after allowing 45 runs (36 earned) in its first four games of the season. The Knights were just 1-3 in those games in an opening week to forget.

Getting right on the road against the top-ranked team in the country isn’t easy to do, but that’s what UCF did. Ole Miss was missing second baseman Peyton Chatagnier, who suffered a hamstring injury Monday, spoiling an outstanding start to the season for the Rebels’ sparkplug. But, otherwise, this was the same Ole Miss lineup that last weekend scored 20 runs in three wins against high-end competition at the State Farm College Baseball Showdown.

This was more like what was expected this season out of UCF’s pitching staff, however. It posted a 2.17 team ERA in 2020’s shortened season and allowed more than five runs just once in 18 games. While closer Jeffrey Hakanson was drafted and starter Joe Sheridan transferred, much of that group is back. Jones came in as a transfer from Jacksonville to bolster the staff, as did righthander Kenny Serwa (Southern Illinois-Edwardsville), though he is out to start the season due to injury.

If UCF can prove that its first week performance on the mound was the fluke – and not this weekend at Ole Miss – it will be right back to looking like the team that ranked No. 24 in the Preseason Top 25. Its lineup has been solid early this season, led by the sensational start of freshman shortstop Alex Freeland (.500/.594/.654) and the powerful bat of catcher Ben McCabe (.296/.441/.852, 4 HR).

The Knights this weekend proved they can beat any team in the country. If they can play at that level consistently, they will be a big factor in the American Athletic Conference title race and beyond.

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