(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
When Kevin O’Sullivan took over as head baseball coach at the University of Florida before the 2008 season, he wasn’t exactly walking into a NCAA Division I wasteland.
Oh sure, Florida had failed to reach the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons (2006 and ’07) for the first time in 20 years, but the Gators had advanced to Omaha for the College World Series as recently as 2005.
This was not a downtrodden program by any stretch, but upon his arrival and over the past three seasons, O’Sullivan did offer a tweak here and there.
“Our whole focus was to try to get as good as we could get,” O’Sullivan said on Nov. 8, a day after the Gators completed their fall practice sessions. “As soon as we got here, our focus was ‘OK, let’s instill some quality here, let’s instill some work ethic and get the program we want.’
“Not that the program was bad before we got here – it wasn’t. But we wanted to kind of put our mark as far as what kind (of) identity we wanted for our program and go out and get good players. There were a lot of good players when we got here to begin with … so it’s not like the cupboard was totally empty.”
In his first three years as Florida’s head coach, O’Sullivan quickly returned the Gators to national prominence with three straight trips to the NCAA Regionals. In June, they returned to the College World Series for the first time since the 2005 Florida team wound up as national runner-up.
The 2010 Gators finished 47-17 overall (they lost both of their CWS games) and 22-8 in the Southeastern Conference, good for their first SEC Championship in five years. Florida repeated as the SEC Eastern Division Champion in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1997-98.
O’Sullivan is 123-63 (.661 percent) in three seasons at Florida. The Gators’ 58-32 (.644) league mark is the best in the SEC in that time frame.
He was an assistant coach, an assistant head coach and an associate head coach at Clemson for nine years before arriving in Gainesville.
O’Sullivan and his staff, which includes top assistants Brad Weitzel and Craig Bell, have already proven themselves to be master recruiters.
Eight players who were brought in the fall of 2009 played prominent roles in last season’s successes, and there are six highly touted freshmen on campus this fall that could contribute immediately in the spring. All six were taken in the 2010 Major League Draft but none of the six signed professional contracts.
One of those freshmen is right-hander Karsten Whitson from Chipley, Fla., who was a first-round pick (No. 9 overall) by the San Diego Padres in The Draft. He didn’t sign and came to play for at least the next three years at UF instead.
“The one thing that we’ve always said to all our players is, regardless if you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, it doesn’t matter what year in school you are. If you win a job, you win a job,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s what happened last year. It ended up that four of our top six hitters in the lineup were freshmen, and two of our three starters on the weekend were freshmen.”
Those freshmen – now sophomores - included third baseman Austin Maddox, shortstop Nolan Fontana, left-hander/designated hitter Brian Johnson, right-hander Hudson Randall and catcher Mike Zunino. All received Freshman All-America and Freshman All-SEC accolades.
Maddox, Zunino and sophomore right-hander Michael Heller were Aflac All-Americans in 2008. Whitson, Maddox, Fontana, Randall and Zunino were all at the Perfect Game National Showcase in ’08.
A lot of factors go into O’Sullivan’s ability to lure the nation’s top talent to Gainesville.
“The No. 1 thing is the reputation of Florida. Florida is one of those schools that is just nationally known,” O’Sullivan said. “You can go to any corner of the United States and Florida is a popular school.
“The recruiting base in the Southeast is arguably the best in the country,” he continued. “There are a lot of advantages here; it’s just the matter of finding the right players that fit our program that are serious about going to school. It comes down to that.”
The University of Florida is widely recognized as an outstanding academic institution and a lot is asked of the students who are admitted. UF is consistently ranked among the nation’s top universities.
Last year’s Gators were certainly serious about their schoolwork. Eight members of the team were chosen to the Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll – 32 players have been on the Honor Roll in O’Sullivan’s three seasons – and five others were named to the Freshman Academic Honor Roll.
“It’s very important,” O’Sullivan said. “If you’re a coach at the collegiate level and the academic piece is not the most important part, you’re probably in the wrong profession. We take the academic part very seriously.”
A lot of UF’s appeal to recruits comes simply from its location in Gainesville. The weather is usually very nice the year-round (the average high temperature during the spring baseball season is in the mid-80s), the beautiful campus is large but easy to navigate, and the athletics facilities are second to none.
McKethan Stadium at Perry Field is where the Gator baseball program calls home. The stadium, which opened in 1988, can seat up to 5,500 fans and the team averaged 3,505 fans for its home games in 2010. By season’s end, a school record 126,195 fans had watched the Gators win 33 of the 36 games they played at McKethan Stadium.
Florida is 90-19 at home during O’Sullivan’s tenure.
“That’s the first thing that appeals to the players that are 17-, 18-years-old, is the facility,” O’Sullivan said. “It might not be the most important thing for parents, but for young players who are choosing between School A and School B, that’s part of it.”
O’Sullivan pointed out that all of the athletics facilities at UF are “outstanding” and serve as home to many of the best programs in the country. Gators athletic teams have won 24 national championships, including BCS football championships in 2006 and ’08 and NCAA men’s basketball championships in ’06 and ’07.
The volleyball program has won 18 of 19 SEC regular season titles and is currently ranked No. 1.
“Everything here is good,” O’Sullivan said. “There is not any single sport here at Florida that isn’t competitive at the national level, and it’s great to be a part of a program like that. You just try to keep up with Joneses, so to speak.”
The presence of Weitzel and Bell on his staff is also a huge plus for O’Sullivan and the school’s recruiting efforts.
Weitzel coached in the Minnesota Twins’ organization for 16 years and Bell was a scout for the Cincinnati Reds for eight years and with the Seattle Mariners another eight years.
Coupled with O’Sullivan’s two years as a coach for the Twins’ rookie league team, the staff has a lot of experience on the professional level.
“Part of our recruiting is saying (you’re) going to have professional coaching at the collegiate level. That separates our staff,” O’Sullivan said. “We have a really good baseball staff – they’re baseball guys. They know the game, they know fundamentals. They’ve been around the block and they’ve been around other people before they got to Florida that are very, very smart … and arguably some of the best people in the game.”
Even with the advantages O’Sullivan enjoys at UF, recruiting remains a challenge. He said most of the recruiting is done in a seven- or eight-week period from late June through mid-August when the staff gets out to national tournaments and showcases, many of them Perfect Game events.
“Those tournaments with a bunch of teams in them make life a lot easier for us because we can see a bunch of players at one place,” O’Sullivan said. “We get to evaluate the players that we like versus other great players in the country, where they might stack up in the Draft, and so on and so forth.”
The Florida Gators definitely need to be mentioned in any discussion regarding the top collegiate baseball programs in the land. The 2011 team will be among the early favorites to make the trip to Omaha for the CWS in June.
The Gators have never won the College World Series, but O’Sullivan is certainly putting the pieces together to perhaps change that reality.
“I’m just an average guy and I feel very fortunate to be at Florida – there’s no better job in the country, as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “This is a dream job for me and I just enjoy going to work every day. Florida hasn’t won its first national championship in baseball yet, but I think we’re getting close and as long we keep working hard we’re going to keep knocking on that door, and hopefully one day that will happen.”
Following is a list of current Florida Gators who attended PG Showcase events and tournaments. Click on their name to look at their PG profiles:
Josh Adams – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Matt Campbell – PG Academic Showcase
Jonathon Crawford – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Frankie DeJiulio – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Cody Dent – PG National Underclass
Anthony DeSclafani – PG National Showcase
Nolan Fontana – PG National Showcase
Daniel Gibson – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Michael Heller – Aflac/PG National Showcase
Brian Johnson – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Keenan Kish – PG WWBA/PG National Showcase
Greg Larson – PG National Showcase
Austin Maddox – Aflac/PG National Showcase
Nick Maronde – PG National Showcase
Ben McMahan – PG National Showcase
Alex Panteliodis – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Daniel Pigott – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Justin Poovey – PG National Showcase
Zack Powers – PG WWBA
Hudson Randall – PG National Showcase
Steven Rodriguez – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Tyler Thompson – PG WWBA/BCS Tournaments
Tommy Toledo – PG National Showcase
Preston Tucker – PG WWBA/PG Predraft
Kamm Washington – PG National Showcase
Karsten Whitson – Aflac/PG National Showcase
Mike Zunino – Aflac and PG National Showcase
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