OCALA-- It was a magical season for the College of Central Florida baseball team in 2014.
The Patriots battled through adversity and wound up third in the state and ended a two-year absence from the FCSAA State Tournament by finishing second in the Mid-Florida Conference.
Perhaps the defining moment of the season was during the state tournament when Collin Woody, who hadn't started on the moud since high school, threw a complete game against Gulf Coast State to help the Patriots advance to the final day of the tournament.
CF wound up losing to eventual national runner-up Miami Dade, but along the way, it knocked off Chipola College, the No. 1 team in the nation, and provided its fans with many memorable moments.
This time around, the Patriots return a good nucleus, as they attempt to navigate through the always tough MFC and into the state tournament.
CF had an excellent fall, capping off the preseason with a win over Embry Riddle. The Patriots earned a 6-5 win over the NCAA Division II power to help add to the optimism surrounding this year's squad.
"I am real excited about this team," said veteran CF coach Marty Smith, who won his 600th game last season as Patriot coach. "We've got a good crew. They've done well (in the preseason) and also in the classroom.
"We had a 3.2 combined GPA for the fall, with 16 guys over a 3.0 and two at 4.0. We've got good leadership and I am really looking forward to this year."
CF will battle with defending conference champion St. Johns River, as well as Santa Fe and Seminole among others in the MFC.
"It's a tough conference and the usual suspects will be right there," Smith said. "St. Johns has a lot of players back and they'll be good. Santa Fe will be better than they were last season and Seminole will be talented. It's always tough in conference."
To make the transition from a year ago, CF has a strong offense that should help a youthful pitching staff learn on the job.
"We've got most of our home run hitters back from last year and this is probably the most powerful lineup that we've had since the hot bat era," Smith said. "Having this much offense back will help us.
Christian Khawam, a Florida International signee, leads the way for CF after a freshman year that saw him hit .392 with 10 homers and 53 RBI. Khawam (RF) earned team MVP, all-conference, all-state, all-tournament and CF's Top Male Athlete honors a year ago.
Aside from Khawam, who became the first CF player to hit multiple homers in a game at the state tournament in over 30 years, Ryan Crile (2B), Justin Ambrosino (1B), Colby Brown (C) and Ben Ellzey (3B) are players who return with the ability to make things happen at the plate.
Crile, a UCF signee, hit .316 last season, while Ambrosino set a torrid pace down the stretch and finished at .316 with three homers and 30 RBI.
Brown (two homers, 17 RBI) was strong behind the plate and Ellzey has swung the bat well in both the fall and preseason practice.
The shortstop position is a key for CF to fill with the graduation of Enderson Velasquez, but Andrew Frazier, a transfer from Mount St. Mary's appears to be more than ready to do so.
Frazier started 41 games as a freshman at the NCAA Division I level and committed only nine errors last season and hit .264. He'll be backed by Dalton Mauldin, a strong defensive player.
In the outfield, Khawam leads the way, but CF has a standout transfer in Malik Tatis, whose brother Fernando was the last player in the major leagues to hit two grand slams in one inning. In center, Garrett Wright and German Reyes, a switch hitter, are battling for the role.
Heyer, Bryan Mejia are also candidates to see time as CF's designated hitter.
On the mound, the Patriots will have a new look. CF lost its top two starters from a year ago in Boomer Biegalski and Mike Cetta. Biegalski, the ace of last year's staff, signed with Florida State after his record-breaking freshman season.
"Losing him really hurts because you could pencil in 10 wins," Smith said. "He's going right up to FSU and is either going to be their Friday or Saturday night starter and Cetta signed with the (Arizona) Diamondbacks.
"This year, though, we have a chance to have more overall pitching depth. Right now, we have potential, but we have some guys who are still trying to adjust to get college hitters out."
Frantzis is the lone returning pitcher to log significant innings from a year ago on the CF staff. Last season, the Lakeland High product went 4-2 with a 3.65 ERA.
Zach Whitaker and Cooper Wallace also are in the mix to see time in the rotation for the Patriots. Players like Heyer and Hunter Halsey are also pitchers who could make a difference as the season goes on.
CF opens up on the road on Friday at 2 p.m. against Palm Beach State. Then, they will head to Indian River on Saturday for a doubleheader starting at noon.
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