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UCF baseball wins wild opener in Rich Wallace’s coaching debut

Every Valentine’s Day for the last six or seven years, UCF coach Rich Wallace gives his wife, Alex, a custom-made baseball scorebook with his team’s upcoming games. It’s not only a valuable tool to track the season, but it helps create beautiful memories for the couple to share.

As Wallace took the field Friday night in his first game at the helm with the Knights, Alex sat in the front row next to the dugout with this year’s version of the Valentine’s gift, intently keeping score of the opener against Bryant.

“It’s an absolute dream come true,” she said of her husband’s new job. “It’s such a surreal moment.”

It’s been 15 years since Rich Wallace found himself in a UCF baseball uniform, making Friday’s 12-11 victory a homecoming for the Orlando native who spent eight years here as a player and assistant coach.

Many of the 2,602 fans at John Euliano Park were on hand to lend their support to Wallace, with family, friends and former teammates having flown in for the weekend series with the Bulldogs.

“I’m excited for him just to know the work that he’s put in and to see it come to fruition,” said Dee Brown, a former outfielder for the Knights and teammate of Wallace. “For UCF, I’m excited because I know what type of dude he is and what he’s building [here].”

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Wallace’s first game with the Knights turned out to be a memorable one.

UCF (1-0) came from behind three different times before scoring the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth inning in the thrilling victory win over the visiting Bulldogs (0-1) from the America East.

“It wasn’t pretty, but there was some toughness in there,” said Wallace.

UCF jumped to a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first after left fielder Matt Prevesk lined a single past Bryant third baseman Chris Einemann. One batter later, first baseman Lex Boedicker hit a groundout to short, driving Prevesk home for the first run of the Wallace era.

The Knights faced their most formidable challenge in the top of the third inning as starting pitcher Ben Vespi struggled with his control, allowing 3 runs on 4 hits as the Bulldogs charged back to take a 3-1 lead.

UCF took advantage of a throwing error and a passed ball to cut its deficit to 3-2 in the third and tied the score in the fourth.

Bryant tried to break the game open after scoring 3 runs in the top of the sixth, but the lead quickly vanished in the bottom half of the inning. UCF had three RBI singles, a 3-run double and a 2-run homer by right fielder Jack Zyska, one of 17 transfers to join the team this offseason.

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“That was wild,” said Zyska, who finished 3 of 5 for 2 RBIs and 3 runs. “That was one of the better games I played in a really long time.”

The Bulldogs, however, fought back to tie the score at 11 with a homer by left fielder Gavin Noriega in the top of the eighth.

UCF scored the go-ahead run in the bottom when second baseman Braden Calise’s sacrifice fly scored Zyska.

Chase Centala pitched a 1-2-3 inning for the save.

“It’s one of those nasty Friday night college baseball games that you’re just going to have to keep playing,” said Wallace. “Keep playing and when you get your opportunity, make it count.”

Wallace admits there were nerves in his first game as coach at his alma mater.

“You’ve thought about this moment for a long time, and then you get out there and it’s real,” he said. “I was just trying to get to the first pitch.”

The threat of inclement weather Sunday forced the series into a Saturday doubleheader, with the first pitch set for 11 a.m. and the second game slated to start 45 minutes after the conclusion of the first contest.

Email Matt Murschel at mmurschel@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on X at @osmattmurschel.