GAINESVILLE, Fla. – When Kevin O’Sullivan became the head coach at the University of Florida before the 2008 season, the Gators had failed to make an NCAA postseason appearance each of the two previous years.
That might not sound like much of drought to most of the nation’s Division I programs, but for an elite program like that at UF, it bordered on unacceptable.
The “drought” ended in O’Sullivan’s first season in 2008, when he led the Gators to an NCAA Regional berth and a 34-24 overall record. In 2009, Florida won the Southeastern Conference (SEC) East Division championship and advanced to an NCAA Super Regional for the first time since 2005.
The momentum was building. The 2010 season brought an outright SEC championship, a Super Regional title and the program’s first berth in the College World Series since that magical 2005 season. 2011 was even better, as the Gators won yet another SEC title, once again made it to Omaha and the CWS and finished as national runner-up with a 53-19 record after losing to SEC rival South Carolina in the CWS best-of-3 championship series.
With the 2012 season in full swing – the Gators opened the SEC portion of their schedule this weekend with a three-game home series against Vanderbilt – the natural order of progression seems obvious. Ranked No. 1 in the country by Perfect Game, UF did nothing to temper the sky-high expectations this season brought by going 16-1 in non-conference play over the past three weeks.
“Well, so far, so good,” O’Sullivan (known to most simply as “Sully”) said during a conversation with Perfect Game before a practice session March 15 at McKethan Stadium. “We’ve had a chance to play a lot of different people – we’ve regularly played 12 or 13 position players (each game) and I don’t think we’ve had the same lineup two days in a row.
“I feel good about our pitching, but by the same token this is the second part of the season,” he continued. “The SEC, everybody knows how tough of a league it is and we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us.”
This is a team brimming with talent, led by a solid group of former PG/Aflac All-Americans like catcher Mike Zunino, two-way talent Austin Maddox, right-handers Karsten Whitson and Johnny Magliozzi, and freshmen infielders Josh Tobias and Sean Trent.
Thirty Gators have been selected in the MLB amateur draft under O’Sullivan’s watch – including 11 last year – and Zunino, Maddox, left-hander Brian Johnson and shortstop Nolan Fontana are all projected to be top-100 picks in June. Perfect Game tabs Zunino as the No. 5 overall prospect in the draft.
The Gators’ pitching corps is led by weekend starters and right-handers Hudson Randall, Whitson and Jonathan Crawford, and the left-hander Johnson. Crawford is also being used out of the bullpen, and O’Sullivan has gotten good bullpen innings out of Maddox and left-hander Daniel Gibson. All of the players are Perfect Game alumni.
The reasons for the Gators’ success under O’Sullivan – an assistant and associate head coach at Clemson for nine years before arriving in Gainesville – are as varied as his players’ backgrounds. But those players all have at least one thing in common.
“Let’s cut right to the chase – it comes right down to the talent that you have,” O’Sullivan said. “Good players make good coaches, and that’s been going on for years and years and years. We’ve been fortunate enough to have recruited some real good players who have decided to come to school, because a majority of them had options to go in another direction out of high school.”
O’Sullivan didn’t name names, but he could have been speaking of Whitson, who was selected by the San Diego Padres with the ninth overall pick of the first round in the 2010 draft but opted to come to Gainesville. Whitson was eager to enjoy the college experience.
“If a kid is going to decide to go to school and bypass the draft out of high school, getting an education should be the first and foremost thing,” O’Sullivan said. “Fortunately for us, we have a great institution here and it’s very well-respected academically. It’s a very difficult school to get into and it seems like it’s getting harder and harder every year.”
O’Sullivan also praised his staff for the program’s consistent recent history of success, a staff led by assistant coaches Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel, both former professional scouts.
“I think there’s a major misconception with our coaching staff,” he said. “Brad Weitzel and Craig Bell were scouts before they came to Florida but they’re way more than scouts; they are baseball guys. They know the game (and) they can teach hitting, base running, bunting, defensive play – they’re really sharp guys. They just so happened to have been scouts previously and obviously they have the ability to indentify talent, but more importantly, they’re baseball guys. They know what they’re doing.”
O’Sullivan also mentioned the contributions of volunteer assistant Don Norris, a former head coach at Gordon College.
The Gators flashed every aspect of their winning ways in a 9-2 victory over arch rival Florida State March 13. It was a night O’Sullivan felt brought out the best in everybody.
“The weather was beautiful, there were over 6,000 people and I think the fans appreciated the talent that was on the field from both teams,” he said. “It’s a great rivalry and it’s a respected rivalry. When we play Florida State we have a great deal of respect for them, and what they’ve been able to do year-in and year-out is remarkable. We’re still trying to get there, but playing (FSU) helps you become a better team. It can bring out sometimes the best in your club and sometimes the worst.”
To an outside observer, it seems the Gators have already reached the Seminoles’ level and have done so by attracting the nation’s top prospects to campus. O’Sullivan said Perfect Game has played a role in his ability to locate those prospects.
“As far as what they do, it’s totally changed the landscape of recruiting,” he said. “Kids are getting identified earlier (and) you get to see kids in a competitive environment. When you go down to those last couple of days at those (WWBA) 16-and-under, 17-and-under, 18-and-under tournaments in Atlanta every year, you start to figure out (a prospect’s) makeup.
“For me, it’s invaluable and you get a chance to see the kids compete,” he continued. “I’m always at those events … and I wish we could have three guys out on road all recruiting at once, but unfortunately we can’t do that.”
It’s practically assumed the Gators will be in Omaha in mid-June looking for their first College World Series championship (they finished second in 2005 and 2011). The key for maintaining a high level of success throughout the remainder of this season and well into the future is maintaining the proper perspective, according to O’Sullivan.
“You don’t look behind and you don’t look too far ahead,” he said. “You just take care of the day that you’ve got, and continue to recruit and continue to coach and just don’t change your approach. I’m the same person that I was 10 years ago that I am now. My daily responsibilities have not changed; I don’t get to far ahead and I don’t look at the past.
“I just worry about what we need to do today to get better and where we need to go from here.”