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College | Story | 1/7/2021

No. 1 Gators eye unfinished business

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Tommy Mace (Courtney Culbreath)

Ten months have passed since what looked to be a season of perpetual promise for the Florida Gators was brought to a crushing end by a global pandemic. They are now looking to regroup, reengage and take care of some unfinished business during what is hoped to be a more “normal” 2021 college baseball season.

So much has changed since that fateful day on March 12 when the NCAA cancelled both the remainder of the 2020 regular season and the entirety of the postseason, including the College World Series. And yet, in a weird sort of way, so much also remains the same.

College athletics top governing body decided to allow its D-I athletes to retain a season of eligibility which meant any player who wanted to return in 2021 – including seniors – could do so with the blessing of their respective programs.

In the case of the Florida Gators, that meant head coach Kevin O’Sullivan essentially hit the mother lode twice, welcoming back almost his entire roster from a team that started 16-0, and finished 16-1 and ranked No. 1 in the 2020 Perfect Game College Top 25 Final National Rankings.

Which brings us to early January 2021, when on Wednesday Florida again was introduced as the No. 1 team in the PG College Top 25 Preseason National Rankings, one of eight programs from the powerhouse SEC to land in the Top 25.

Yes, the band is back together in Gainesville for O’Sullivan and his stellar coaching staff and it’s eager to get things started, although an official spring schedule has not been released. O’Sullivan, now in his 14th season at Florida and with seven trips to the CWS – including one championship – on his resume, was able to bring his players on campus for fall practices and scrimmages and addressed them at the first possible opportunity.

“The initial message to them was that this was going to be a different fall,” O’Sullivan told PG during a telephone conversation earlier this week. “This is when fall is going to start, this is when it’s going to end and we need to try to do the best we can to not to have disruptions when the fall is going on.”

Unfortunately, things didn’t get off on the right foot the Gators. There were several positive tests for the coronavirus within the program on the heels of the Labor Day holiday weekend. But from that point moving forward, according to O’Sullivan, the players did a much better job adhering to the protocols the school’s medical staff had put in place and the fall was deemed a success.

And while discussing the construction of his 2021 roster, O’Sullivan told PG that, in truth, the numbers are relatively manageable. Thirty-nine players were listed in the fall and with injuries factored-in, he said he’s looking at having 37 healthy players in the spring, only two more than the normal 35.

“As far as the scholarship numbers and things like that, they worked themselves out,” O’Sullivan said. “So, all-and-all, I think we’re in pretty good shape.”

“Pretty good shape” is most certainly an understatement. The Gators return eight position players that started at least 11 of the team’s 17 games last season and two others, infielder Kris Armstrong and catcher Calvin Greenfield, who played in 11 games apiece and got more than 30 at-bats.

The straw that stirs the drink is sophomore center fielder Jud Fabian from Ocala, Fla., a 2021 PG Preseason First Team All-American and an alumnus of both the 2018 PG All-American Classic and the 2018 PG National Showcase. Fabian had 20 hits in 17 games last season, including six doubles and five home runs, and drove in 13 runs while scoring 19.

Sophomore outfielder Jacob Young (’17 PG National), junior first baseman/left-hander Jordan Butler (’16 PG National), redshirt freshman catcher Nathan Hickey, redshirt freshman infielder Josh Rivera (‘18 PG National), senior infielder Kirby McMullen, sophomore first baseman Kendrick Calilao (’17 PG National) and sophomore infielder Cory Acton (’17 PG National) all return with loads of experience. (It’s worth noting that Rivera was also the MVP at the 2018 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., while playing with the Florida Burn).

“Obviously, Jud Fabian is going to be the name that is brought up the most, but I think we have really good balance up and down the lineup,” O’Sullivan said. “We have a good combination of righthanded and lefthanded hitters and I think we have more depth on both sides – pitching and hitting – then maybe we’ve had in some other years.”

Without having the box scores in front of him to reference, O’Sullivan could say with confidence that he didn’t put the same lineup out there in any of the season’s 17 games. The goal was to try to play as many guys as possible before the Gators got into SEC play on the fifth weekend. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the season never reached that point.

“With that being said, I think that this year we would probably do something similar to that,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll move some guys around and get some other guys in and maybe have a little bit of a rotation but still try to put ourselves in position to win ballgames. We want to give everybody an opportunity to play once conference play starts.”

The pitching staff as a unit – both starters and relievers – is also extremely talented and experienced, led by the return to the weekend rotation of junior righthanders Tommy Mace (’16 PG National) and Jack Leftwich (’16 PG National) and redshirt freshman lefthander Hunter Barco (’18 PGAAC, ’18 PG National).

Mace, a PG Preseason Second Team All-American, made four starts and went 3-0 with a 1.67 ERA in 2020; Leftwich was 2-0/4.15 in four starts and Barco, a PG Preseason Third Team A-A, was 2-0/1.40 in four starts.

“With Tommy and Jack, they’ve both pitched in the SEC; they’ve both pitched in Omaha,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve both pitched in high-leverage situations and have been in that position where they’ve been No. 1s or No. 2s or whatever it might be. They’ve all worked really hard during the offseason but quite honestly you don’t get all three starters back very often in college baseball.

“We’re fortunate enough to have that back (this spring)...I’m pleased with where they’re at and obviously we’re going to count on those guys to kind of lead the way.”

O’Sullivan did point out, however, that if the pitching staffs on every team in the league are examined closely it will become evident that just about everyone has a No. 1, 2 and 3 already in place so the separation between the Gators’ starters and those in the other 13 SEC programs might not be readily discernable.

But what does set his staff apart, O’Sullivan said, is a veteran bullpen. In previous years, it might be necessary to use untested freshmen in relief roles on any given weekend and that often provides for a steep learning curve.

The depth is borderline astounding. Sophomore right-hander Ben Specht (’17 PG National) made nine appearances out of the pen last season and went 2-0 with three saves. Sophomore righties Christian Scott (’17 PG National) and Nick Pogue (’17 PG National) and redshirt freshman righty Ryan Cabarcas (’18 PG National) each made seven appearances.

Sophomore right-hander David Luethje (’17 PG National) came on six times, and redshirt freshman righty Tyler Nesbitt (’18 PG National) posted a 0.00 ERA over 11 2/3 innings pitched in five appearances (one start).

A lot of these guys were on the 2018 Gator squad that advanced the College World Series as the No. 1 national seed a year after Florida won the CWS championship in 2017.

“There’s no substitute for experience,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s something you can’t give a player; that happens over time. Obviously, we’ve got a talented roster. We’ve got some depth offensively; we’ve got all three starters back and we’ve got some experience in the bullpen.

“But the thing that I’m excited about as much as anything is we’ve got some experience on our [entire] team,” he continued. “For the most part, they’ve all played in the SEC except for the incoming guys and a bunch of them played in Omaha, as well.”

Speaking of the “incoming guys,” O’Sullivan’s haul of true freshmen from the national prep class of 2020 is impressive as well. The top newcomers include shortstop Sterlin Thompson (’20 PG World Showcase), catcher Mac Guscette (’19 PGAAC, ’19 PG National ’19, MVP of the ’19 WWBA Jupiter, also with the Florida Burn), shortstop Colby Halter (’19 PG National) and left-hander Timmy Manning (’19 PG National).

It might come across as coach-speak but Sully is adamant when he says this team has to face the reality that it can only control those things that are firmly in its control while shutting out any outside distractions.

Things like preseason polls and rankings, and all the chatter and opinions expressed by those outside the program are out of their control, so should effectively be ignored. And, he pointed out, that it seems like there are very few times when a team is the consensus preseason No. 1 and then walks off the field at TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha at season’s end carrying the CWS championship trophy.

It sounds so incredibly simple but the key to any successful season is staying focused on the task at hand. O’Sullivan wants his players to understand that while they’re very talented in their own right, there are a lot of other very talented teams out there as well, including many in their own league. The separation between No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Louisville – or even No. 1 Florida and No. 25 UCF – is not a great divide.

The job of the coaching staff is to keep this talented group grounded while emphasizing that nothing ever comes easy or without sacrifice. There is no get-out-of-jail-free card or an all-expenses paid one-way ticket to Omaha early next summer.

And then there’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. The COVID-19 pandemic is, unfortunately, still raging across the country and college baseball teams can’t hunker down inside the relative safety of a bubble environment. There will be travel, there will be close proximity to others and disruptions should be expected.

“Regardless of how talented your roster is there’s going to be situations during the year that you’re going to lose key players for a weekend and your team is not going to be the same,” O’Sullivan said. “You’re going to have to withstand those situations where you’re going to lose some players on a certain weekend and some other guys are going to have to step up; it’s really that simple.”

But this is a time of hope, and the 2021 Florida Gators have something else to look forward to as the start of the season approaches. The athletic department will open a brand-new, $65 million Florida Ballpark at Alfred A. McKethan Field with its 7,000 fan capacity possibly as early as Feb. 19, or whenever the home opener is slated.

It’s another feather in the cap of a program O’Sullivan has coached to 547 wins (225 SEC) and 12 NCAA Regional berths in 13 seasons and another testament to the staying power of Florida baseball.

“We talk about it as a staff all the time and with our players about being a part of a project like this that really is only going to happen one time in your career,” O’Sullivan said of the program’s new digs. “There’s only one team that is going to play the first season in the new stadium and they need to appreciate that and understand that this is a special time.

“The stadium is incredible – it’s got every amenity for the players and the fans that you could imagine,” he added. “We’re really looking forward to hopefully getting this thing started on February 19.”

There is, after all, some unfinished business to be tended to.

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