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Knights earn spot in NCAA baseball tourney field for first time since 2017

Kyle Kramer wasn’t sure if he wanted to return for his final season of eligibility at UCF.

The right-handed pitcher had spent the previous two campaigns with the Knights heading into the 2024 campaign, but his future seemed uncertain until he spoke with new coach Rich Wallace last summer.

“He was like, ‘I’ve been to Omaha. I’ve been to Regionals. I’ve been to a Super Regional. I’ve been to everything and it’s an awesome feeling to get there,'” Kramer recalled. “Once he said that, it gave me an idea of the kind of future he wanted here, and I like, ‘OK, we’re going to win here.’ ”

That future became a reality on Monday when UCF (35-19, 14-15 Big 12) earned a spot in the 64-team field of the NCAA Baseball Championship. It’s the first time the program has been invited to the postseason since 2017.

The third-seeded Knights will participate in the Tallahassee Regional, with the double-elimination tournament starting on Friday. Top-seeded Florida State (42-15, 17-12 ACC) faces No. 4 Stetson (40-20, 20-10 ASUN) at noon (ACC Network), with UCF scheduled to face No. 2 Alabama (33-22, 13-17 SEC) in the nightcap (6 p.m., ESPN+).

“I was a little bit on edge just because you never know when they go in that room,” Wallace said following the announcement. “I’ve been through this enough. You never know what’s coming out of that [selection] room, but I thought our resume — non-conference, conference [schedule] and conference tournament — was that of a worthy NCAA tournament team.”

It’s another incredible accomplishment for Wallace’s team, which wrapped up its first season in the Big 12 with a semifinal appearance in last week’s conference tournament. UCF defeated Cincinnati and Oklahoma State to advance before losing to the Cowboys on Friday night, 10-1.

Those victories would turn out to be crucial for the Knights, who were among the final four teams to earn spots in the tournament field despite having the nation’s No. 33 RPI.

For players such as senior infielder Andrew Brait who spent much of their careers at UCF and have never played in the postseason, to hear the Knights make it into the tournament meant so much more.

“It was a dream come true,” said Brait, who hit .286 this season with 2 home runs and 26 RBIs. “That was always a goal since I’ve been here. We always knew it could be done and to see that finally come true, it’s just amazing.”

“We talked about it as a group and laid it out there,” added Wallace. “Kramer, [Ben] Vespi and some of the other guys in the room that have given everything they could to this program for so long, I wanted and our team wanted them to have the opportunity to experience not only postseason baseball but NCAA tournament baseball at the highest level.”

Wallace, who played at UCF and was an assistant under Jay Bergman, returned to Orlando last summer after being an assistant coach at Jacksonville, Highpoint, Creighton and Notre Dame.

Veterans such as catcher Danny Neri and outfielder Jack Zyska understand the challenges that await the Knights this weekend. The duo played with Wallace at Notre Dame and were part of a Fighting Irish team that attended the College World Series in 2022.

“Everything steps up a level when you get to this type of competition,” said Neri. “Everyone got there because they’ve earned it, so you have to be really locked in from Pitch One to the last pitch of the game.”

Added Zyska. “All you have got to do is get to June, get to the Regional and all bets off and anything can happen.”

Matt Murschel can be reached at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com