Feb. 7, 2012

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Hicks, UCF have great expectations

By Sean Ryan

CollegeBaseballInsider.com Co-Founder

sean@collegebaseballinsider.com @collbaseball


In the span of a year, D.J. Hicks (left) has gone from uncertainty to undoubtedly one of the best players in Conference USA.


Hicks, a redshirt junior first baseman/pitcher at UCF, entered last season a bit of a question mark after missing almost his entire sophomore season with a lung injury. Fast forward a year and he’s the C-USA preseason player of the year and one of many reasons the Knights are optimistic about improving on last year’s NCAA Tournament team, their first appearance in seven years.


“The expectation for him is to be a leader for us every single day that he shows up to the field and be an example for our players,” UCF coach Terry Rooney said. “Every single day, he’s done that. He has flourished in that role.


“For us to have a great year, D.J. Hicks has to have a great year. It’s pretty simple.”


It may sound as if Rooney has great expectations for Hicks and his Knights. That’s exactly the point.


“Our theme for our team is ‘Good to Great,’” said Rooney, whose squad went 39-23 a year ago. “We were good last year, we want to be great.”


Many eyes will be on Dalton James Hicks, who always has gone by D.J. and “was confused when I went to kindergarten, it said Dalton on my desk.”


Hicks, a 6-5, 240-pounder, returns to the middle of the lineup after a splendid redshirt sophomore season when he hit a team-best .351 with 14 homers, 66 RBI and a .583 slugging percentage. He was the lefty-hitting power complement to right-handed Jonathan Griffin (.343/19/58), who was drafted by Arizona in the 21st round, one of seven Knights to be drafted last year.


Hicks doesn’t feel any pressure.


Pressure is seeing your career hang in the balance.


After a freshman season in which he hit .301 with 32 RBI and went 4-5 as a starter on the mound, Hicks was enjoying a summer with the Luray Wranglers of the Valley Baseball League in Virginia. In a game late in the season, he dove for a ball while playing first base.


“I remember diving and feeling a little bit of something,” Hicks said. “The next inning I doubled, and I had trouble breathing.”


The next morning, he “felt almost like a bouncing” in his right chest while walking and had more trouble breathing. Not thinking it was anything serious, Hicks took a week off then played the final week of the season before returning home to Altamonte Springs, Fla.


A couple weeks later, Hicks was back on campus. As he stepped out of his car to attend the Knights’ first team meeting in the fall of 2009, he felt the same pain as he initially felt when he was injured. Hicks tried to hit a little that week but was in too much pain.


Trainers couldn’t find anything wrong but set him up with a rib specialist. Still looking for a cause for the pain, Hicks next went to a general practitioner. After some X-rays, the mystery was solved: Hicks had a collapsed right lung.


“As soon as he got the X-ray, he said you’re not allowed to leave my sight,” Hicks said. “He was more concerned that I had gone so long. He said it’s obviously not good to be walking around with one healthy lung.”


Hicks had surgery that night, a simpler surgery that would cause less recovery time. When that procedure didn’t work, Hicks had a second, more intensive surgery a week later. All told, he spent 16 days in the hospital.


The road back was unknown.


Doctors thought Hicks could miss as little as eight months and as much as a year and a half. Hicks couldn’t lift or play baseball for five months. Because of the inactivity, he gained some weight, but ended up losing about 15 pounds. He tried to come back in early March after missing UCF’s first seven games but could only muster six games.


“Each day got worse and worse,” Hicks said.


He sat out the rest of the year and was granted a medical redshirt.


“That was the first time in my life I’ve ever had to sit out one or two games,” Hicks said.


Rooney said, “It was hard on D.J. It was hard on our kids. He’s one of our leaders.”


Hicks took the time off as an opportunity to learn. He hung around Rooney and then associate head coach Cliff Godwin. He picked their brains and studied UCF’s hitters, listening as the coaches made adjustments with his teammates.


“At the end of the day, I think it really helped,” he said. “I learned a little more from the outside view than as a player.”


When he returned last year, Hicks primarily served as the Knights’ designated hitter; he also logged 12 innings on the hill. Even though he wasn’t 100 percent, he put together a monster year and was named to the C-USA’s second team.


“It gave me, I don’t want to say drive, but I think it gave me a little more extra than I think other players know they have,” Hicks said of being injured. “You know what your body can handle.”


Now Hicks, a 49th round pick of San Francisco out of high school, is coming off a summer when he led the Cape Cod League with seven homers. He is part of a terrific cast that includes veterans Ronnie Richardson (.312/2/34), Travis Shreve (.302/0/20/22 SB), Erik Hempe (.307/7/29) and Darnell Sweeney (.288/1/45).


And he’s finally healthy.


“Right now, the first thing is to take it from ‘Good to Great,’” Hicks said. “We’re all proud as a team of what we accomplished last year. At the end of the day it’s not what we set out for.”


(photos courtesy of UCF Media Relations Office)