Photo: Tim Casey

Walking in the same Gator steps

College : : Story
Jeff Dahn        
Published: Sunday, March 18, 2012

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – One is the salty, almost 21-year-old veteran, the three-year starter and career .308 hitter from  Jacksonville who can catch and play the infield, and who has also worked himself into the Florida Gators’ closer’s role.

The other is the fresh-faced frosh, a 19-year-old infielder just a year out of Southeast Guilford High School in Greensboro, N.C., looking to make an immediate impact with the NCAA Division I No. 1-ranked Gators.

Years and backgrounds separate University of Florida junior Austin Maddox and UF freshman Josh Tobias, but they shared many of the same experiences while growing up and developing their baseball skills. And when the talk turns to Gators’ baseball and the on-going 2012 season, the tone in Maddox’s and Tobias’ voices makes them sound like long-lost brothers.

“I feel real comfortable with my roles on the mound and at the plate,” Maddox said before a recent UF practice session as the Gators prepared for their Southeast Conference-opening three-game series against No. 7 Vanderbilt. “I’ve been swinging the bat well and I’ve been doing exactly what I need to do on the mound – coming in late in the game pretty much shutting the other team down. I feel good.”

Tobias, who was readying himself for his first taste of SEC action when he spoke last week, sounded like a veteran.

“I’m feeling good and I’m excited to start conference play,” he said. “We got these first games under our belt – they weren’t conference but they were pretty tough games against tough teams.”

The Gators swept the three games from the Commodores to improve to 19-1 overall (3-0 SEC) and ran their winning streak to 17 games heading into a non-conference game with Samford on March 20.

Tobias got a little bit of a feel for what playing in the SEC would be like during Florida’s rugged non-conference slate, which included three-game series’ with No. 9 Cal State Fullerton and No. 15 Miami, and a single game against No. 6 Florida State.

“That’s what you come here for, to play in big games like that,” Tobias said. “The atmosphere was great, it was competitive … and the energy was exhilarating. It’s something you can thrive off of.”

These are battles Maddox has been fighting for the past two seasons. A 6-foot-3, 235-pound two-way player, Maddox hit a combined .308 with 23 home runs and 107 RBI in 125 games as a freshman and sophomore in Gainesville. Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan decided to start using him off the mound last season, and he finished 3-0 with a 0.67 ERA in 27 innings and 21 appearances, all out of the bullpen.

Maddox has played in 10 games in the field this season, hitting .3797 and it’s almost the same thing. I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m playing against these guys again.’”

Maddox was selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the 37th round of the 2009 amateur draft right out of Eagle View’s Academy in Jacksonville, and that wasn’t a slot close to being high enough to consider.

“Once I fell that far in the draft I knew it was real good shot I was going to Florida,” Maddux said before adding he doesn’t spend much time contemplating the upcoming draft, even though he is projected as a top-80 prospect.

“You can’t think about that,” he said. “What’s going to happen is going to happen. You just go out there and play and leave it up to them.”

The Washington Nationals picked the 5-foot-9, 205-pound Tobias in the 31st round of the 2011 draft, but he also decided to honor his commitment to O’Sullivan and come to Gainesville.

“It’s always tempting to consider other options but I think the best decision for me was to come here and play at Florida,” Tobias said.

And now the seasoned junior and the raw freshman are united in their stated mission of returning the Florida Gators to the College World Series.

“The target’s on us all year and that’s a good thing. We want that,” Tobias said. “Everybody’s going to come at us and we’re going to come right back at them.”

Whenever or where ever the season ends, it will mark the close of another chapter in Maddox’s already storied amateur career. He never looked back.

“I love playing here,” Maddox said. “We’ve got great coaches and I’ve had great experiences here, especially with all the success we’ve been having. I don’t regret being here at all.”

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