O’Sullivan key in Gators’ return to Omaha

OMAHA, Neb. — On Wednesday, the Gators’ first night in town for the College World Series, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, his assistants, their families and a group of team support staff gathered at a local steakhouse for dinner.

It was more of an appreciation dinner than celebratory feast. The Gators are in Omaha for a third consecutive season, a thought that probably seemed ludicrous to some before O’Sullivan’s arrival five years ago.

Chip Howard, UF’s senior athletics director for internal affairs, offered a toast during the outing to O’Sullivan and his coaches. He praised them for the job they have done, not only this season but since they arrived and changed the perception — and reality — of the program.

“We wanted to become relevant year in and year out,” Howard said. “Did that mean we expected to make it to the College World Series every year? No. But we wanted to have a program that was at least in the hunt.”

The first trip, in 2010, came in O’Sullivan’s third season and ended quickly with back-to-back losses. A year ago, the Gators made it all the way to the CWS Championship Series, where they lost consecutive games to SEC rival South Carolina. The Gators and Gamecocks will meet again this year, but in the first round on Saturday night.

Any time you get to book a room in Omaha in mid-June, it has been a good season. But for O’Sullivan, you could say this has been his best season — and his most difficult.

The Gators opened the season ranked No. 1 in every major poll. They stayed there for two months, reeling off a school-record 18 consecutive wins during one stretch.

Still, the trip back to Omaha wasn’t without turbulence, most notably a 19-16 record in the final 35 games of the regular season.

Questions began to surface. Were the Gators overrated? Could they handle the pressure of all those expectations and make it back to TD Ameritrade Park? Would the draft and other outside distractions become too much?

The Gators answered by sweeping three games in the NCAA Gainesville Regional and then taking two games against North Carolina State in the Gainesville Super Regional to advance to the CWS for the eighth time in the program’s history.

Still sweaty and sunburned from an emotional 9-8, extra-inning win over the Wolfpack on Sunday to punch the Gators’ ticket back to the CWS, O’Sullivan offered a glimpse into his psyche and the road back to Omaha.

“It was hard for the team to deal with,” O’Sullivan said of the enormous expectations. “Getting back to Omaha was the big elephant in the room that no one wanted to talk about. It’s hard to get to Omaha, No. 1, but to add the fact that you’re supposed to get there makes it more difficult.

“It has not been an easy road. I think every year you try to pull new things from the team that you have, and I’ve learned things this year that I didn’t know. I think the players handled the expectations very well.”

O’Sullivan backed off this year’s team perhaps more than any other in his five seasons at UF. He knew the talent was in place to make it back to Omaha, but he also knew a roster featuring nine players who have been drafted in the first nine rounds of Major League Baseball’s amateur draft needed its space.

This team knew how to play the game at a high level, knew the expectations and knew what had to be done to be playing in late June.

“Our main focus in winning,” said junior catcher Mike Zunino, who on Friday became UF’s first Dick Howser Award winner. “We have one goal in mind.”

That tunnel vision never wavered, even when the Gators incurred some losses once SEC play started.

“I was very, very pleased with our players and how they handled those expectations,” O’Sullivan said. “Our players will not perform if we put extra pressure on them. We’ve had a great run with a great group of guys.”

O’Sullivan’s ability to manage a team and a game has received rave reviews of late. On draft night, MLB Network analyst Peter Gammons praised O’Sullivan’s eye for top-level talent as Gator after Gator flew off the board.

During last year’s CWS, ESPN announcer and former big-league pitcher Orel Hershiser spoke highly of the way O’Sullivan handles major league pitching prospects such as former first-round pick Karsten Whitson.

After 16 seasons as an assistant coach — 15 at the collegiate level — O’Sullivan has established his place as one of college baseball’s top coaches.

Senior outfielder Preston Tucker was the first player O’Sullivan recruited at Florida. Once headed to Clemson, Tucker is aware of his good fortune for playing for a coach like O’Sullivan and experiencing three consecutive trips to the CWS.

“Not a lot of players get to say that,” Tucker said. “I think that goes to show how good Sully has done with recruiting players — not only with talent, but with guys that know how to grind and guys that are really competitive.”

Like most great players and coaches, O’Sullivan is a student of the game. He constantly writes down notes in search of new knowledge. He is also the kind of grinder that he seeks on the recruiting trail.

During dinner Wednesday, as the group of about 40 enjoyed their meals and shared a moment of relaxation, O’Sullivan left the table more than once to take a phone call. As his father and wife chatted nearby, O’Sullivan, 44, often sat reserved, as if to allow others to savor the moment.

Howard saw a coach at the height of his profession.

” . . . What he’s done the last three years has been a product of what he did the first two years, making the hard decisions and building the program with his vision and conviction,” said Howard, the UF athletics administrator. “The result of what you are seeing is what he put into it.”

Of course, the Gators hope to complete the job during their stay in Omaha. It won’t be easy as they open with two-time national champion South Carolina.

The players have talked all week about bringing an all-business attitude to Omaha. The Gators are back in Omaha. The draft is out of the way. Their goal at the start of the season remains alive.

“I think we’re in a spot right now where everything is kind of behind us,” senior pitcher Greg Larson said. “It would be awesome to cap it off with a national championship.”

As they try to win the program’s first national title, O’Sullivan is going to try to enjoy the final leg of the journey as much as possible. This team has a unique bond that few teams have.

The man in charge is a big reason why. That’s worth a toast regardless of what happens in Omaha.