Back in Omaha: Gators Found Their Way

June 16, 2017

UF opens against TCU on Sunday night in a College World Series in which “there are no Cinderellas” according to head coach Kevin O’Sullivan.

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OMAHA, Neb. – The UF baseball team’s stay at the College World Series got off to a splendid start on Friday.

When it was the Gators’ turn to take the field for practice at TD Ameritrade Park, the sun was out and it didn’t rain a drop. One win down.

Friday’s victory won’t count in the standings, but after Florida’s rain-soaked Gainesville Super Regional victory over Wake Forest, a day without adversity is always welcome.

There have been few such days in head coach Kevin O’Sullivan‘s 10th season steering the program, and sixth that has included a visit to the CWS. Florida faces TCU on Sunday night at 7 ET.

“Never gets old,” O’Sullivan said.

You can make a strong argument that this is the least likely of O’Sullivan’s clubs to make it to Omaha and the one with the most difficult road. The Gators have been regulars in the CWS since O’Sullivan’s third season in 2010.

That team was a blend of old and new, anchored by senior outfielder Matt den Dekker, junior closer Kevin Chapman and SEC Freshman of the Year Austin Maddox, who became the first UF rookie to be named All-America since Brad Wilkerson in 1996. When the Red Sox promoted Maddox to the majors this week, he became the 10th player from the 2010 team to reach the big leagues.

The ’10 Gators dropped both games in Omaha, but they established a standard that continues to thrive under the direction of O’Sullivan and assistants Brad Weitzel and Craig Bell. This is Florida’s sixth trip to the CWS in eight seasons and third in a row.

As he wore an “Omaha Bound” hat after Florida’s 3-0 series-clinching win over Wake Forest on Monday night, junior catcher JJ Schwarz spoke about this team’s journey, a ballclub that lost 10 players to the 2016 MLB Draft and had some question marks at the beginning of the season.

“The whole season has been a roller coaster,” Schwarz said. “It was tough, but I feel like that speaks a lot about this team. I hope that’s the difference-maker going into Omaha.”

The obstacles were everywhere in 2017, whether injuries to key players, a .235 team batting average in March, the search for a closer and bullpen consistency, or the weather-delayed super regional that featured nearly 10 hours of downtime at McKethan Stadium over three days.

O’Sullivan knew he had two key ingredients from the start: strong starting pitching and excellent defense. Those held true. The rest took time.

The Gators eventually started to hit – peaking with a .299 average in May – discovered their closer in Michael Byrne, and then relied on contributions from anyone on the roster willing to step up such as freshman Austin Langworthy in the decisive regional victory over Bethune-Cookman or freshman right-hander Tyler Dyson in Game 3 of the super regional against Wake Forest.

“We’ve had to rely on a lot of different people,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve had to overcome a ton. Hasn’t been pretty, but somehow we found a way to get here.”

The goal now is to stay here.

In a preseason meeting with the Gators, O’Sullivan told them he believed in them, that he thought the ’17 Gators had as good a chance to win a national title as any of the previous five teams he took to Omaha.

When they started slow – Auburn swept UF to open the Southeastern Conference schedule – the naysayers began to pick away. The noise got louder after Florida dropped back-to-back games at home against Tennessee in early April.

What has happened since? Florida is 27-7, won a share of the SEC regular-season title, earned the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament and third overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Florida faced must-win games in both the regional and super regional and kept its season alive.

“Not every game is perfect, but we’re finding ways to win,” said junior right-hander Alex Faedo, who will start on Sunday. “That’s exactly how our season’s been. It makes it that much sweeter.”

O’Sullivan has been to Omaha enough times now to realize the game changes when you arrive in America’s heartland as Coastal Carolina proved a year ago by shocking the field to win. Florida has advanced to the championship series just once (2011) and is 6-10 overall at the CWS under O’Sullivan.

Florida will have to continue to win however it can to return to campus with its first national championship. That includes getting bunts down, executing hit-and-runs, capitalizing on scoring opportunities and some two-out hits. And, of course, good pitching, stellar defense and a dose of luck.

With 18 one-run wins on their résumé, the Gators are as battle-tested as anyone in the field.

“There are no Cinderellas,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve been out here six of the last eight years and I think this is the most complete field I’ve seen.”

In fact, every team in the eight-team field has been to Omaha at least once in the last six years. This is TCU’s fourth consecutive appearance without a championship.

Nothing will be easy. But what’s new?

“We’ve had five one-run losses in a row out there,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s difficult. There’s such a fine line between winning and losing out here. There’s no question we would love to win our first national championship at Florida.”

Maybe the sun keeps shining this year on the Gators. If so, every hardship on their journey was worth it. 

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