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College  | Story  | 1/11/2018

No. 1 Gators chase title repeat

Jeff Dahn     
Photo: UF Athletics/Tim Casey

Preseason Top 25
| Preseason All-Americans | 2018 Preview Content Index

The dream was finally realized the evening of June 27, 2017, when the Florida Gators fought-off the Louisiana State Tigers, 6-1, and claimed their school’s first College World Series title and NCAA Division I National Championship.

There must have almost been a feeling of inevitability that accompanied the championship. For two straight years and five of the previous seven, the Gators had claimed a spot at the table in Omaha only to leave with the bitter taste of disappointment in their mouths. They had never won a national championship despite 10 CWS appearances since 1988.

But everyone knows there isn’t anything in the world of college baseball that is inevitable, especially when the conversation turns to one specific program capturing a national championship.

Still, 2017 was the third straight year head coach Kevin O’Sulllivan had taken the Gators to the Final 8, and last season’s juniors and seniors knew the drill. Experience needs to count for something, doesn’t it? Aren’t the battle-tested almost always the calmest and most collected? That’s the way the thinking goes, anyway.

“Going through it at the time, I don’t know that I sensed that,” O’Sullivan told Perfect Game during a recent telephone interview when asked if he could tell his team had the upper-hand based on what had taken place at TD Ameritrade Park in 2015 and 2016.

“But looking back on the success that we had last year, I would say, yes, it did. With (Alex) Faedo and (Mike) Rivera and (Dalton) Guthrie and a few of the other guys, the way they moved out there and the way they played … to play that clean I think had a lot to do with the experiences they had in the previous years.”

The 2018 Florida Gators will begin the defense of their national championship on Feb. 16 when they host the first of three non-conference games with Sienna, and they’ll do so as the No. 1-ranked team in the Perfect Game/Rawlings 2018 Preseason College Top 25.

It is noteworthy recognition, but don’t expect the coaches or the players or anyone else associated with the program to talk about it, just like they won’t spend much time talking about last year’s championship season.

When O’Sullivan – or simply “Sully” to everyone in the country’s large and close-knit baseball community – first got his large group of returning players and in his incoming freshmen together in the fall, he was quick to remind them that what’s done is done. He spent a lot more time talking to the players about the need to get past last year instead of dwelling on it.

“I want this team to write their own chapter; obviously, we have some different personnel,” O’Sullivan said. “Our goal is to integrate these new players (into the system) and make them feel as much a part of last year’s team as they are obviously a part of the team this year.”

Everyone has jumped on board with their tunnel-vision goggles in hand, and the players are eagerly anticipating that Feb. 16 opener. They listen to their coaches and they’re completely aware that all championship celebrations came to an end sometime last summer, let alone this fall.

“The first thing Sully said was, yeah, you won it last year but now it’s 2018 and it’s time to create your own legacy,” junior right-hander, newly appointed Friday night starter and PG/Rawlings First Team Preseason All-American Brady Singer told PG this week.

“We’re looking past the success of what we had last year and looking forward to this year, and making memories for this team,” he said. “We can’t let (last year’s) success hinder us; we have to look past it. We’re going to have fun this year and try to do it again.”

The Gators return five position players that started 53 games or more in 2017, and a pitching staff that includes two of their three weekend starters from a year ago: the junior right-hander Singer and PG/Rawlings Third Team Preseason All-American junior right-hander Jackson Kowar. First Team All-American junior right-handed closer Michael Byrne also returns.

Just having that formidable cast back in the clubhouse is reason enough for the Gators to be looking forward to the start of the season. But before the 2018 table can be set, the dishes from 2017 need to be cleared and set aside, and that can’t be done without first taking a quick look back.

It was a season that Florida completed with a sparkling 52-19 record, the fourth time under O’Sullivan that Gators’ teams won at least 50 games (2011, ’15, ’16 and ’17).

This was a team that could have almost been labeled the comeback kids after finishing as the Southeastern Conference regular-season co-champions with the LSU Tigers, the same team they met in the CWS three-game championship series. Both teams finished 21-9 in league play, a mark the Gators achieved after starting 0-3 and 2-4.

But they regrouped, and by the time they arrived in Omaha in June, they boasted a 47-18 record and a No. 5 national ranking; the Gators also carried a full head of steam. They had won seven-of-10 games in the postseason up to that point, a mark that included a 2-1 series victory over No. 16 Wake Forest in the Gainesville Super Regional a week before the CWS.

The momentum of having won 12 of its last 16 games leading up to Omaha wasn’t the most positive force working on UF early last summer. It was more the fact that the eight juniors and two seniors on the Gators’ roster would be playing in their third straight CWS, and it’s impossible to put a price tag on postseason experience of the most intense nature.

Playing in the CWS as the No. 3 national seed, Florida beat Texas Christian and Louisville to open play, lost to TCU and then turned around to beat the Horned Frogs for a second time, and reached the best-of-3 championship series against league rival LSU; they swept the Tigers, winning 4-3 and 6-1.

“The atmosphere in Omaha is unbelievable, and going back and winning the first national championship, you can’t put into words how special it was,” junior infielder Jonathan India told PG during a telephone conversation this week.

“The whole year we were a real close team, and at the beginning of the year things weren’t going so hot, but we came together at the tail-end of the season and played as a team, played for each other and played with a lot of heart; that’s the reason, I think, why we won.”

Singer recalled that there were a million things going through his mind after the final out at CWS was recorded. Every player became emotional as the thought began to set-in that they had just won the first national championship in the storied Florida baseball program’s long history.

“But honestly, it was more about what we had conquered all year, through the ups-and-downs of the season,” he said. “Some of the injuries and the losses that we had (and) starting out in the SEC 0-and-3. And then to come back and fight your way into an SEC championship and then ultimately winning it all in the end, it was such a roller-coaster season.”

Eight players from last year’s team were selected in the 2017 MLB June Amateur Draft, and six of them signed professional contracts: right-hander Alex Faedo (1st Rnd, Tigers); shortstop Dalton Guthrie (6th Rnd, Phillies); catcher Mike Rivera (6th Rnd, Indians), catcher Mark Kolozsvary (7th Rnd, Reds); right-hander David Lee (27th Rnd, Pirates) and right-hander Frank Rubio (29th Rnd, Giants).

Second baseman Deacon Liput (29th Rnd, Dodgers) and catcher/first baseman J.J. Schwarz (38th Rnd, Rays) were drafted but elected to return to Gainesville for their junior and senior seasons, respectively.

Of all the impressive stats the Gators compiled a season ago, one of the most interesting side-notes was that they won a nation’s best 19 one-run games; O’Sullivan pointed to two factors that he believes allowed that to happen.

The biggest might have been the decision he and top assistants Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel made in moving Byrne into the closer’s role during an SEC series with Tennessee in early April. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Byrne actually lost twice in that series, but O’Sullivan thought he threw the ball extremely well. Byrne finished the season 4-5 with a 1.67 ERA and recorded a school record and nation’s best 19 saves.

Another facet of the game that came into play during all those one-run wins was the Gators’ stellar defensive play. Their ability to make the plays in the field was put on display in front of national audience when they played error-free baseball in their five CWS victories.

With Singer (9-5, 3.21 ERA), Kowar (12-1, 4.08 ERA), Byrne and sophomore right-hander Tyler Dyson (4-0, 3.23 ERA) all back, and freshmen Tommy Mace, Jordan Butler, Jack Leftwich and 2016 PG All-American Hunter Ruth looking to contribute, O’Sullivan is feeling pretty darn good about the arms at his disposal.

“Obviously, we’re going to have to go out and perform,” he said of his pitchers. “Getting back Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar – two guys with the potential to be really, really high (draft) picks – and then with Tyler Dyson, I feel like we have three first-rounders to put out there on the weekend. And getting back Michael Byrne is huge.”

All four of those freshmen were drafted in 2017 but chose to delay their professional careers and enroll at Florida. So did 2016 PG All-American shortstop Brady McConnell, who Sully is especially excited about.

Singer began his ascent into his standing as a top-tier pitcher during his freshman year (2016) when he was part of a staff that included A.J. Puk, Logan Shore and Faedo. He carried that into last year when Faedo was the undisputed Friday night ace.

“I was watching the things that they did, and I think the biggest thing was just the confidence that they had in themselves toeing the mound every time really helped me,” Singer said. And now, he’ll be getting handed the ball every Friday night in those tense and always competitive three-game, SEC weekend series.

“Starting a (weekend) series on the right foot is the most important thing to do, getting that win, but really, I think it’s just a different day,” he said. “I’ll have the same mind-set I had last year – I won’t change anything – and I’ll just go out there and try to win ballgames on a different day and get my team started off on the right foot.”

India (.274-6-34), Schwartz (.259-12-56), Liput (.227-3-37), junior outfielder Nelson Maldonado (.299-6-32) and sophomore outfielder Austin Langworthy (.238-4-26) head the list of returning every-day players.

“With a bunch of us coming back from last season, we all said, hey, this is going to be another good year for us,” India said. “We have another good team, a lot of good freshmen came in, so we really can’t think of the past and say we already (won a championship). … Sully always preaches that good teams deal with success, and then they have another good season right after having a successful one.”

The head coach was quick to add: “We’ve got some depth and I do like our team. I think we have some more balance in our lineup and I think we can run a little bit more. But the thing that (we realize) is the other teams in the league are really good, too. So, the margin of error is very small … and we’ve got to stay healthy and we’ve got to get better.”

O’Sullivan credits continuity within the program for the success the Gators enjoyed during the previous nine seasons under his guidance (448-208 overall record). Bell and Weitzel have been with him during his entire tenure, there have been only a couple of strength coaches and trainers and very little turnover among other members of the support staff.

“We’ve had a lot of continuity and with that we’ve had some really talented players who decided to come to school,” he said. “We’ve been able to help those guys develop and it’s been a very fun ride.”

It’s reached the point now that when those talented players come into the program – many of them were given the opportunity to sign professional contracts right out of high school – that they know what the expectations are. There isn’t any reason for the coaching staff to talk about it: the goal is to get to the College World Series and win a national championship.

“We’ve got a culture that I think the players have bought into,” Sully added, “and a lot of that has to do with the caliber of player we’ve been able to get on campus.”

India is an excellent example of the kind of player O’Sullivan recruits, although India was a pretty easy sell. He was a Perfect Game All-American in 2014 and the Brewers selected him in the 26th round of the 2015 MLB June Amateur Draft, but he didn’t sign and headed for Gainesville simply because that was all he had ever wanted to do.

He and his father, John, spoke with PG when they were at the 2012 National Underclass Showcase-Main Event, right in the middle of India’s sophomore year in high school. The article produced was headlined “He’s got Gators in his dreams” and John India contributed the following quote: “He’s been a Gator ever since he was old enough to realize what the Gators were. Getting (an offer from) Florida was a dream come true for Jonathan.”

“It’s unbelievable; I’m living my dream just like I said in high school,” India said this week. “I always wanted to be a Gator and be a part of this program, and now that I’m doing it it’s surreal for me. Being a Gator and wearing the Gator uniform is a blessing and I’m so grateful for (the opportunity). I’ve met a lot of new people and made a lot of new friends, and I’m maturing as a person on and off the field.”

And now, another chapter in the long history of University of Florida baseball is about to be written. This season will definitely be the final go-around for the seniors Schwarz and Nick Horvath and quite likely for the top juniors Singer, Byrne, India, Kowar, Liput and Maldonado.

They’ll bow out after one final season played with a huge target on their backs, and a competitor like Singer wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We feed off that and I think it’s awesome, and it’s always fun being the one with the target on you back. It means you can’t take any team lightly,” he said. “It’s cool that we won the national championship because now we know what to do this year.

“The best thing is when we start losing a few games and get down in the dumps – and of course it’s going to happen – we know how to pick ourselves back up and we know what we can do at the end of the year even after some games that we lost.”

India told PG that this year’s Gators embrace the task of showing any doubters that the 2018 team is every bit as talented as the 2017 version, and that the coaches have them schooled when it comes to dealing with success.

Yes, they are the preseason No. 1-ranked team in all the land and no one can take that away from them, and if they go out and perform at the highest level possible over the next four-plus months they just might still be No. 1 at season’s end.

In June, a new College World Series and NCAA D-I National Championship team will be crowned. Or will it be new? Can the Florida Gators make it two in a row despite losing so many of its stars from a year ago? Does the success enjoyed in 2017 even come into play?

“Last year was last year,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got a lot of games to play and we’ve got a lot of things we need to improve on, like everybody else. There really isn’t anything we can take from last year that we can use this year other than feeling good about ourselves and building from that experience, especially with these returning players.”