ORLANDO, Fla. (UCFKnights.com) – The American Athletic Conference announced its annual baseball awards and all-conference selections for 2017 Monday. Among those honored, were UCF’s first-year head coach Greg Lovelady as Coach of the Year, senior starter Robby Howell as co-Pitcher of the Year, and newcomer Rylan Thomas as Rookie Position Player of the Year. Five Knights were also named to the all-conference squad.
Coach of the Year: Greg Lovelady
Pitcher of the Year: Robby Howell (tied with Houston’s Trey Cumbie)
Rookie Position Player of the Year: Rylan Thomas (unanimous)
First Team All-Conference: Robby Howell, Bryce Tucker, Eli Putnam
Second Team All-Conference: Rylan Thomas, Matthew Mika
“I’m just appreciative of everybody that’s played a part in our journey this year. It’s more a reflection of them than anything else.” Lovelady said when asked about being honored as Coach of the Year. “I’m really grateful for my staff, this is really a staff award and they deserve a lot of credit. There are also guys behind the scenes that do so much to help the kids, nutritionally, in the weight room, and things to keep the kids healthy. They all play such a big role in us having the success that we’ve had this season.”
Lovelady began his journey with the Knights when he accepted the head coaching position back in July 2016, after a three-year stint at Wright State. With the Knights, he managed to turn the program around in just one season, winning The American’s regular-season title after the team had finished last in 2016. UCF has the nation’s fifth-best combined ERA of 2.80 and ranks 10th in the country with 101 stolen bases.
His squad topped The American in ERA, stolen bases & stolen bases per game (1.80), runs scored (360), and walks and hits per inning pitched, allowing just 1.20 average base runners per inning. Lovelady said he implemented a system and tried to set his team up for success, but credits the players with getting the results.
“It’s all about the players, you don’t win coach of the year if you don’t win,” Lovelady explained. “When it comes down to game day, it’s all the kids. The staff and I work really hard to prepare them and put them in the right situations, but at the end of the day if the kids don’t have the belief, trust in us and trust in the process, then they don’t get the wins.”
After leading The American with a 1.96 ERA and being named to the second-team all-conference in 2016, senior right-hander Robby Howell went 9-0 as the Friday night starter this season. Howell earned Pitcher of the Year honors after making 14 starts and notching 80 strikeouts through 88 innings of work. He was one of four pitchers in The American to notch nine or more wins but the only pitcher who didn’t take a loss.
“I’m really happy for him, to get pitcher of the year is a remarkable feat in this league,” Lovelady said of his ace. “I feel like as a Friday night guy, he went out every week and competed like crazy. To go 9-0 is not very easy in this conference. I’m proud of him. He has worked really hard and has been a great leader.”
Freshman first baseman Rylan Thomas was named Rookie Position Player of the Year after an incredible first-year campaign. Thomas led the Knights with 51 RBI’s and had 13 of the Black and Gold’s 45 home runs. He finished the season slugging .538 and hit .309 with runners in scoring position. He started and appeared in all but three of his team’s 56 regular-season games.
“I’m really proud of him, he has worked really hard in is a gifted kid,” Lovelady said of the young slugger. “It’s so difficult to do what he did in this conference but to do it as a freshman, to have the year he’s had and put up the numbers he put up is incredible. He’s a special player, and the crazy part is that he hasn’t even scratched the surface. It’s kind of scary to think how good he can be if he continues to work hard and is willing to learn.”
Three Knights were named to The American’s First Team All-Conference squad, including Howell, closer Bryce Tucker, and right fielder Eli Putnam.
Tucker solidified his role as the closer early in the year, when he struck out the first six hitters he faced and seven of nine total in his first three appearances. Tucker finished the 2017 campaign with 52 strikeouts and just nine walks through 33.0 innings of work.
Putnam started off big as well, hitting a home run against Siena in the Knights’ first at-bat of the season. Putnam led UCF with a .332 season-batting average and notched 15 doubles, two triples, seven home runs, and 36 RBI’s. He hit .333 with runners on base and stole 16-of-17 bases on the season.
Two Knights, Thomas and second baseman Matthew Mika were named to The American’s Second Team All-Conference squad. Mika was a fixture for UCF in the middle infield and led the team in stolen bases. He was 25-of-27 running and ranks 11th in the country amongst would-be base thieves. Mika collected 10 doubles and one triple, and notched 25 RBI’s on the year.
The No. 23 Knights are set to open The American Conference Tournament as the number one seed this week, taking on eighth seeded East Carolina on Tuesday May 23 at 7 p.m. at Spectrum field in Clearwater, Fla. Following its first conference regular season title since 2004, UCF aims for its first conference tournament title since winning the Atlantic Sun Championship in 2002.