GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Florida baseball team, after 12 days on the road, finally arrived back to campus around 4 a.m. Monday.
Several hours earlier in Hoover, Ala., the Gators boarded a bus for home following a 2-0 loss to LSU in the SEC tournament championship game.
They were foggy and bleary-eyed by the time they made it home from their journey, first a three-game series at Tennessee and then the SEC tournament. But by mid-Monday afternoon the Gators had reason to be rejuvenated when it was announced they were the No. 2 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
In a season that started with ample questions and few concrete answers, the Gators built an identity that resulted in the program’s first SEC regular-season title in three seasons.
"We just know how to win, that’s it," junior catcher Taylor Gushue said. "We’re not going to impress you with a whole bunch of ‘wow’ factors, but take our 40-win season and the hardest schedule in the nation to be your ‘wow’ factor. It’s just one of those things that we just got done this year.
"I feel like our team is one of the best teams out there and we definitely deserved the seed we got."
Trying to decipher Florida’s code for winning is a tricky proposition.
The Gators led the SEC in saves (20) and tied for second in defense (.975 fielding percentage), but otherwise, they rank in the middle of the pack in nearly all of the major statistical categories: .267 team batting average (11th), 3.26 ERA (seventh), 26 home runs (tied for sixth) and 34 home runs allowed (13th).
However, perhaps the most important statistic tied to Florida’s success — and certainly in the NCAA’s high opinion of coach Kevin O’Sullivan’s team — is its strength of schedule.
The Gators faced the most difficult schedule in the nation, according to the NCAA’s rankings.
Named SEC Coach of the Year on Tuesday for the second time in his seven seasons, O’Sullivan planned it that way from the very first series of the season.
The Gators opened at home with a three-game series against Maryland, the No. 2 seed in the Columbia (S.C.) Regional. The first pitch from Terps ace Jake Stinnett clocked 94 mph, setting a tone that whatever the Gators earned in 2014 would not come easily.
When the SEC schedule rolled around, the Gators were already battle-tested in a conference that sent a record 10 teams to the NCAA tournament.
While there were grumbles from Florida fans and the media following the release of Monday’s tournament bracket — should the Gators advance past this weekend’s Gainesville Regional, they could potentially face state rival Miami in the tournament for the fourth time in seven years — O’Sullivan told the Gators to focus on what they can control and nothing else.
Florida returned to practice Tuesday after taking Memorial Day off.
"You get to Omaha, it’s not going to be easy," O’Sullivan said. "There is no easy road. You’ve got to play really good teams. At the end of the day, you’ve got to beat good teams if you want to be one of the eight teams playing in Omaha."
The Gators open Friday night against College of Charleston. North Carolina and Long Beach State play the first game.
Under O’Sullivan the Gators are 12-0 at home in regional play and 21-11 overall in the NCAA tournament, which includes three consecutive trips to the College World Series from 2010-12.
However, last season they went 0-2 in the Bloomington (Ind.) Regional to finish 29-30 and prompt questions about which way they would go in 2014.
Up was the final answer.
"We’ve come a long way," O’Sullivan said. "I told our team, this is probably a regional we need. We tend to play up to our competition or sometimes down to our competition, so I’m exciting about it. I’d say it probably takes some the guesswork out on who you throw opening night."
That means right-hander Logan Shore (7-3, 1.99 ERA) is expected to start against College of Charleston on Friday.
After Shore, O’Sullivan will stick to the plan that got the Gators this far.
"We haven’t really looked at anything else other than the game in front of us," he said. "We’ve probably been one of the only teams in the country that has gone Shore, TBA, TBA, toward the last three weeks. I don’t know why we should change things now."
Left-hander Bobby Poyner (5-3, 3.44 ERA) will factor into the mound equation at some point this weekend.
Poyner is a holdover from 2013 and has experienced the highs and lows of the postseason. He pitched in the College World Series as a freshman and didn’t make it into a game as Florida’s season came to a quick end in Bloomington.
Poyner is confident this year’s Florida team can continue to surprise the way it has done all season.
"We’re very happy with where we’re at," he said. "Last year was rough. We had to put it behind us. Everybody is feeling pretty good about themselves and that’s what you want going into regionals."