Repeat performance? No. 1 Florida appears primed for another run toward Omaha
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — The life-size picture is impossible to miss, a constant reminder of what Florida accomplished last year and the goal for this season.
The enlarged photo of the Gators celebrating their first baseball national championship in Omaha, Nebraska, adorns the lobby of the team facility. The championship trophy is there, too.
Players and coaches walk by them all the time. The Gators hope to add to the display in five months. No one would be surprised if they did.
Florida is No. 1 in every major preseason poll , and for good reason. Coach Kevin O’Sullivan returns five starters and most of the nation’s best pitching staff, a rotation that includes two right-handers (Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar) projected to be first-round draft picks in June.
No doubt, the Gators are stacked and capable of repeating. They open the season Feb. 16 against Siena.
“We’re not just trying to make it to Omaha,” right-hander Tyler Dyson said. “We’re not just trying to make it to the Super Regionals. We’re trying to win it (all). You’ve got to compete. You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice what you can to win it all because we know how it feels to win it all. We don’t want to lose the last game of the year.”
Florida relied on pitching and defense to get to the College World Series in 2017, and used that combination to sweep LSU in the best-of-three finals.
The Gators lost a few key pieces in the draft, most notably ace Alex Faedo, shortstop Dalton Guthrie and catcher Mike Rivera. But they return a trio of right-handed starters — Singer, Kowar and Dyson — as well as All-American closer Michael Byrne, infielders Deacon Liput and Jonathan India, senior captain JJ Schwarz and outfielders Austin Langworthy, Nick Horvath and Nelson Maldonado. Throw in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, led by highly touted shortstop Brady McConnell, and Florida was the popular preseason pick.
O’Sullivan knows his team has everything needed to return to Omaha and understands how much pressure will be on his players. He even called Oregon State coach Pat Casey a few weeks ago and “picked his brain a little bit.”
Oregon State (2006-07) is one of four teams to repeat as national champions in the last 40 years, joining Stanford (1987-88), LSU (1996-97) and South Carolina (2010-11).
“If you look at the national champions over the last 10 years, there have been quite a few teams that have not lived up to expectations the following year,” O’Sullivan said. “I’ve reached out to quite a few people and asked what, `Would you have done differently?'”
O’Sullivan learned that keeping the locker room together is a key, so he included the team’s 16 newcomers (12 freshmen and four junior college transfers) in every championship-related celebration. They were recognized on the football field last fall, on the basketball court last week and been part of autograph sessions since.
He also has talked extensively to his team about turning the page.
“We’re not defending a national championship,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got different players; it’s a different team. I want this team to write their own chapter, their own book. …
“The fact of the matter is we’ve got a good team, but we’ve got to get better. We’ve got some question marks like everybody else does. I do like this team. I do think they are heading in the right direction as far as putting last year behind them, but time will tell.”
Here are some other things to know about the Gators:
Second baseman Deacon Liput was suspended for fall practice for an off-the-field issue, but returned to the team last month. He is expected to miss some games early in the season while awaiting formal reinstatement. “We’ll figure it out,” O’Sullivan said. “I wish I had more answers for you, but right now I just know he is going to miss some games. But he’ll eventually be back. I just don’t know exactly how long.”
The team’s top hitter in 2017, right-fielder Nelson Maldonado likely will open the season as a designated hitter. Maldonado is recovering from shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. He injured his shoulder on a head-first slide last season.
Coach Kevin O’Sullivan has named a captain for the first time in his 11 years at Florida. Catcher JJ Schwarz earned the title after deciding to return for his senior year. “I probably should have done that before,” coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “For whatever reason, never really crossed my mind. When he decided to come back, I thought it was really a good time to maybe start a nice tradition there.”