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College : : Story
Preview: Mission to a title
Kendall Rogers        
Published: Thursday, March 22, 2012

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The Florida Gators have amassed an amazing 20-1 record so far this season, and have yet to relinquish the top spot in the Perfect Game Top 50 for a single week.

Surprisingly, coach Kevin O'Sullivan feels like his team still hasn't reached its full potential, a scary thought for opposing coaches to ponder.

As the Gators gear up for this weekend's series against last year's nemesis, the South Carolina Gamecocks, they're reminded of the last time the two programs met. It was Omaha last year, and for the national title. The Gamecocks took the series and captured back-to-back national titles. Meanwhile, UF headed home hungrier than ever to win a national title.

The Gators have been a well-oiled machine so far this season. Even without starting pitcher Karsten Whitson, who is on the shelf for at least 10 more days, and even with several freshmen such as Josh Tobias, Casey Turgeon, Taylor Gushue and Justin Shafer in the lineup, this Gators club is different, and perhaps even better, than the squad that faced the Gamecocks last June.

Knowing that, O'Sullivan realizes the history between the Gators and Gamecocks, but insists his team won't be thinking about last year's College World Series. Instead, they're completely focused on the task at hand, which is reaching their goals in 2012.

"I don't want to downplay it [playing South Carolina], but the fact of the matter is they're very very good and we got beat fair and square at the end of last season," O'Sullivan said. "We just look at this as a great series between two SEC Eastern Division rivals. That's all there is to it."

Strangely, what seemed to be an amazing series between two top-five teams just a week ago has turned into a potential turning point and an important for the wrong reasons type of series for the Gamecocks. The Gators are 3-0 in SEC play, coming off a home series sweep over Vanderbilt. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks were surprised last weekend when they got swept on the road by surging Kentucky. The Gamecocks' troubles were compounded with a home midweek loss to Wofford.

To no surprise, the Gamecocks have pitched at a high level this season. They have a solid weekend rotation with Michael Roth, Colby Holmes and Matt Price leading the way. Though, there's still a movement by some to move Price back to the bullpen. Meanwhile, Forrest Koumas, who started last season and replaced Price as closer, has a 2.13 ERA in 12 2/3 innings and has recorded three saves.

Where the Gamecocks differ most from last season is at the plate, where they're hitting just .288, with freshman Joey Pankake and seasoned veterans Evan Marzilli and Christian Walker leading the way. Where this team differs from last year's club is in terms of sheer quality in the batting order. There's a noticeable drop off from top-to-bottom in the Gamecocks' lineup.

That isn't the case with the Gators' offensive lineup. Catcher Mike Zunino leads the way with a .408 batting average and seven home runs, while outfielder Preston Tucker is hitting .329 with eight home runs. There's also Nolan Fontana (.329), Casey Turgeon (.300), Taylor Gushue (.288, 5 homers), Justin Shafer (.286) and Daniel Pigott (.288). Freshman Josh Tobias, who's hitting .255 with two home runs and 17 RBIs, is the only perceived weak link in this lineup so far this season.

"I'm not sure we're better than we were last season just yet, but what I can say is that we're playing very sound baseball and we're getting contributions from everyone in our offensive lineup," O'Sullivan said. "I think all of our guys kind of feed off each other. And when you're having success, the other players also want to have that type of success."

In addition to his position players' success at the plate, the Gators have played tremendous defense, sporting a .984 fielding percentage entering the weekend. The infield has been particularly impressive. Zunino is doing a tremendous job behind the plate, freshmen Casey Turgeon and Josh Tobias have fielding percentages of .963 and .902, respectively, and shortstop Nolan Fontana has a fantastic .976 fielding percentage.

Florida's elite defense has taken much pressure off a once-again outstanding pitching staff. Hudson Randall continues to be a consistent arm and has been terrific his last two starts, while left-hander Brian Johnson is pitching well and has been up to 92-93 this spring.

Jonathan Crawford, who replaced Whitson in the rotation, also has impressed. He has just a 4.43 ERA in 22 1/3 innings, but is displaying great stuff. The talented sophomore right-hander is showing a plus slider so far this spring, while also getting up to 96-97 with his fastball.

The bullpen also has been fabulous. The Gators have one of the nation's premier closers in Austin Maddox, while Daniel Gibson, Greg Larson and Steven Rodriguez all are throwing exceptionally well with ERA's below 3.08. As a staff, the Gators have struck out 171 batters and walked just 33.

"We've always recruited depth when it comes to our pitching staff," he said. "For the most part, we don't walk people and we play great defense. The starting pitchers really are doing a nice job, while the bullpen has depth with a good combination of different types of pitchers."

With a productive offense, good team defense and an excellent pitching staff, the Gators enter the series against the Gamecocks with virtually no flaws.

But in O'Sullivan's mind, things could always be better.

"We're playing very solid right now, but I wouldn't say we're overwhelming people. We're not out there wowing anyone," he said. "We're not beating ourselves right now and we're not letting opponents score many runs. We're just taking care of business."

WHO'S HOT

Kentucky (22-0): The Wildcats couldn't feel better about their situation. They swept South Carolina at home to being SEC play, and are now 22-0 entering a tough road series against rival Tennessee.

Florida (20-1): The Gators had the setback with starting pitcher Karsten Whitson. Now outfielder Tyler Thompson is gone for the season with an injury. However, don't look for the Gators to be setback too much, as they're fresh off a series sweep of Vanderbilt entering this weekend's huge tilt with South Carolina.

Indiana State (17-4): The Sycamores were expected to compete for the Missouri Valley Conference crown this season. Though they got off to a bit of a slow start, the Sycamores have now won 12-straight games, coming off a dominant midweek win over Missouri.

Arkansas (20-2): Speaking of impressive, the Razorbacks have found a way to get the job done in almost every game this season. They swept Alabama at home to begin SEC play, and now head to Mississippi State this weekend winners of 10-straight games.

Coastal Carolina (13-6): The Chanticleers certainly began the season on a negative note with a 3-4 start. However, they've been almost flawless since that point, winning six-straight contests, including solid wins over College of Charleston, UAB and Michigan.

WHO'S NOT

Boston College (7-12): The Eagles appeared to be a huge surprise after just two weeks of action, but have since really struggled in all facets. BC was in the midst of a 10-game losing streak before defeating Bryant in midweek action.

Kent State (8-10): Perhaps losing Andrew Chafin and a host of other talented players was too much for the Flashes to handle in one season. The Flashes are off to a rough start this spring, sitting with an 8-10 record after dropping a pair of midweek games to Fresno State.

San Diego State (9-12): The Aztecs showed signs of finally putting all the pieces together a few weeks ago. But after a tough series against New Mexico and midweek loss to rival San Diego, the Aztecs are back to square one, losers of five-straight contests.

Florida International (8-11): Even with a couple of easy three-game sets sprinkled into their schedule, the Panthers still have a losing record. FIU has now lost five-straight games after losing a midweek bout to Tennessee. Up next is a trip to Western Kentucky.

Alabama (8-13): Crimson Tide coach Mitch Gaspard figured his team had a little rebuilding to do this season, but this much? The Tide was pummeled 9-0 by Troy in midweek action and has lost four-straight contests. They also opened up SEC play 0-3 against Arkansas. Can they get things going against Mississippi at home this weekend?

FIVE STORYLINES

Florida looks for a little redemption
The Gators would love to forget the last time they met the Gamecocks on the baseball diamond. Unfortunately for them, a pair of national title trophies sitting in front of Carolina Stadium will serve as a stark reminder on Thursday. Though Florida is downplaying the idea of this being a redemption series -- and who could blame them -- getting back at the Gamecocks has to be somewhere on their mind as the weekend progresses. The Gators are catching the scuffling Gamecocks at the right time. Catcher Mike Zunino (.408/7/27) is having a terrific campaign, while Preston Tucker (.329/8/22) and Nolan Fontana (.329/4/14) also continue to impress at the plate. Then there's the pitching staff with Hudson Randall (3.45), Brian Johnson (3.16) and Jonathon Crawford (4.43) picking up the slack for Karsten Whitson. The Gators have played near flawless baseball so far this season, and that trend should continue against South Carolina this weekend.

First full weekend of Conference USA play
The Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC have gotten rolling with conference play already this spring, while C-USA gets things rolling as a whole this weekend. There are some intriguing series to watch. For instance, Central Florida desperately needs to make a statement this weekend as it plays host to East Carolina. Meanwhile, Houston heads to Southern Mississippi in a bout between two teams looking to create an identity, while Marshall is at UAB and Rice hopes to avoid a potential upset during a trip to Memphis. Tulane is the only team outside of conference play this weekend, facing Maryland-Baltimore County at home. In terms of series picks, give me Rice, UCF, Southern Mississippi and UAB.

Big weekends for Wake Forest, Maryland
In the first few weeks of the season, there were few teams more surprising than Maryland and Wake Forest. The Terrapins made a huge statement early on with a series win over UCLA and an impressive showing at the East Carolina tournament. However, they've since fallen on hard times, getting swept by Wake Forest to begin ACC play before dropping two of three to North Carolina at home. The Demon Deacons aren't in as dire straits, having won three games over the Terrapins. However, they're back in a position where they need to win some games after getting swept at N.C. State last weekend. Things don't get much easier for either this weekend. Maryland heads south to face red-hot Miami, while the Demon Deacons play host to sizzling Florida State. These teams need to win series like this if they want to take a step forward.

Some Big Ten teams begin conference play
For northern teams that have been traveling all over the country for the past month, the start of Big Ten play is such a breath of fresh air. For some teams, this weekend's conference series marks the beginning of their home schedule. There are some intriguing matchups on tap. For instance, red-hot Purdue hits the road this weekend to face upset-minded Ohio State. The Buckeyes hope to bounce back from a brutal midweek loss to Louisville. Other series on tap this weekend include Nebraska officially opening up its Big Ten membership with a home series against Illinois, Iowa hosting Northwestern and Penn State playing host to Indiana. The Big Ten is good enough this season to perhaps land two or three NCAA at-large bids.

Important weekend for Mississippi, Mississippi State
Every coach in the Southeastern Conference knows that if you get off to a horrid start in league play, chances are good you'll never recover. That's precisely the possible situations the Rebels and Bulldogs face entering the weekend. The Rebels played host to Auburn opening weekend of conference play, dropping two of three to the Tigers in surprising fashion at home. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs hit the road and dropped two of three to LSU. Both teams have huge series coming up this weekend. The Rebels hit the road to face struggling Alabama, while the Bulldogs play host to an outstanding Arkansas club. Ole Miss has no excuse not to take care of business against the Crimson Tide, while State should be ecstatic if it can win a home series over Arkansas with the number of injuries it has sustained the past few weeks. Either way, both teams really could use a series triumph.

TEN SERIES TO WATCH

No. 1 Florida at No. 8 South Carolina: The Gators entered the season the favorite to win the national title, and they've done nothing to change that prediction so far this spring. The Gators will be without outfielder Tyler Thompson and starting pitcher Karsten Whitson this weekend, but that hasn't seemed to matter ... yet. Jonathon Crawford has stepped up in a big way in place of Whitson, while the Gators have several freshmen that have risen to the occasion both in the field and at the plate. For South Carolina, it must hit better with runners in scoring position this weekend. The Gamecocks have scuffled at the plate at times this season, and enter the UF series with a .292 average. South Carolina needs a big weekend from first baseman Christian Walker.
PG Pick:
Florida

No. 4 Arkansas at No. 19 Mississippi State This is an important series for both clubs. The Razorbacks were at home to begin SEC play, sweeping Alabama in impressive fashion. Now, the Hogs hit the road with a strong bullpen and weekend starters Ryne Stanek and DJ Baxendale leading the charge. Meanwhile, Dominic Ficociello (.348), Matt Reynolds (.382) and tim Carver (.329) are key cogs to watch at the plate. For the Bulldogs, winning a home series over the Hogs would be huge considering their vast amount of injuries. The Bulldogs desperately need strong pitching performances from Kendall Graveman (2.30), Nick Routt (4.05) and Chris Stratton (2.12). It'll be tough for the Bulldogs to take care of the Bulldogs with some injuries.
PG Pick: Arkansas

No. 5 Florida State at No. 41 Wake Forest: The Seminoles really couldn't be playing a much more impressive brand of baseball right now. Mike Compton, Brandon Leibrandt and Pete Miller continue to do a solid job in the weekend rotation, while outfielder James Ramsey and first baseman Jayce Boyd are big-time contributors at the plate ... Meanwhile, Wake Forest needs something good to happen this weekend. The Demon Deacons had much promise until last weekend's road series loss to red-hot N.C. State. For the Demon Deacons to continue to be one of the more talked about teams in the NCAA postseason picture, a series win over the Seminoles is a must.
PG Pick:
Florida State

No. 36 Maryland at No. 13 Miami (Fla.) : After starting the season on such a high note, the Terrapins have recently taken a step back with two rough weekends in a row. They got swept on the road by Wake Forest two weekends ago before taking two of three from North Carolina last weekend. Perhaps winning the series finale against the Tar Heels is the one thing that could get this program going again. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels continue to get solid pitching performances from guys such as Michael Morin and R.C. Orland, while sophomore Kent Emanuel continues to be an excellent staff ace for the Tar Heels.
PG Pick:
Miami

No. 11 Texas A&M at No. 34 Pepperdine: What an absolute dandy this series in Malibu, Calif., should be this weekend. The Aggies bounced back from a tough series loss to Cal State Fullerton with a solid showing against Kansas State (at least the final two days of the series). Meanwhile, Pepperdine has been one of the nation's surprises so far this season with some solid series wins. Whichever team steps up offensively is who wins this series. Both teams possess very solid starting pitching, with every starting pitcher (for both teams) carrying earned-run averages below 2.71 so far this season. The Aggies have the better offensive lineup, thus should win a big road series over the Waves.
PG Pick:
Texas A&M

No. 7 Arizona at No. 26 Oregon State: This series has mild upset written all over it. Though Arizona is rated much higher than OSU at this point in the season, it definitely could be argued that the Beavers are playing a better brand of baseball. Kurt Heyer, Arizona's outstanding ace pitcher, must start the weekend on a positive note. Meanwhile, the Beavers played very well last weekend in a road series sweep over California. Dan Child and Ben Wetzler were tremendous in starting roles, while the Beavers also have a solid one-two punch in the bullpen with Matt Boyd and Tony Bryant leading the way.
PG Pick: Oregon State

No. 25 East Carolina at No. 24 UCF: The Pirates are playing a solid brand of baseball these days (outside of the High Point affair) and head to Orlando, Fla., with an outstanding pitching staff in tow. For instance, the Pirates have a stout weekend rotation with Kevin Brandt (1.77), Tyler Joyner (1.97) and Jharel Cotton (2.22) leading the charge. Meanwhile, the Pirates also have some excellent relievers in Andy Smithmyer and Tanner Merritt, among others. Meanwhile, the Golden Knights haven't racked up great wins this season and have struggled in some midweek games against premier opponents. Thus, this weekend's series against the Pirates is huge. Should the Knights hope to jockey for good postseason position, they must win a series like this one at home.
PG Pick:
UCF

No. 39 California at No. 17 Arizona State: The Golden Bears have taken a bad turn over the past two weeks. They split a road series against Nebraska two weekends ago before getting swept at home by Oregon State last weekend. The Bears didn't do much of anything well against OSU, but rebounded in midweek action with good pitching in a 4-3 win over San Francisco. Perhaps that victory is one that gets this team going moving forward. Meanwhile, the Sun Devils are coming off a tough week that included a midweek loss to Utah Valley and a hard-fought series loss to UCLA last weekend. The Sun Devils will be a motivated bunch this weekend with ace pitcher Brady Rodgers leading the charge.
PG Pick: Arizona State

No. 16 LSU at Auburn: Here's another big series this weekend that has upset written all over it. The LSU Tigers took care of business at home opening weekend of SEC play with a hard-fought series win over Mississippi State. LSU possesses a very solid one-two punch in the weekend rotation with Kevin Gausman and Ryan Eades leading the charge. Meanwhile, Auburn was one of the big surprises opening weekend, hitting the road and taking two of three from Ole Miss. AU has a very good chance to win this series if it pitches the way it has the past few games. The Tigers, in their last three games against South Alabama and Ole Miss (twice) have allowed a combined six runs, outscoring opponents 20-6.
PG Pick:
Auburn

No. 3 North Carolina vs. No. 18 N.C. State: While the two Tobacco Road teams continue play in the NCAA Men's basketball tournament, the two baseball teams also are making plenty of headlines. The Tar Heels are off to a fantastic start this season with a stout bullpen, a good starting rotation and some surprising bats leading the way. Meanwhile, the Wolfpack has been one of the nation's pleasant surprises this season. Freshmen Carlos Rodon, a pitcher, and Brett Austin, a talented catcher, have both played exceptionally well so far this season, while Chris Diaz is having a productive offensive campaign for N.C. State. Both teams are playing at a high level entering the weekend.
PG Pick: North Carolina


Kendall Rogers is the college baseball managing editor for Perfect Game and can be reached at kendall@perfectgame.org



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