Gators Baseball Win National Title

It was a celebration as low-key and understated as Kevin O’Sullivan’s personality. Around 2,000 of the Gator faithful showed up at McKethan Stadium to welcome Florida’s 2017 NCAA baseball champions.

“We haven’t gotten any sleep at all,” Deacon Liput said as he walked on the field. Liput went 2-5 with 3 RBI in the title game, which happened to fall on his 21st birthday. “It’s a night I’ll never forget,” he added as he was serenaded with ‘Happy Birthday’ by the fans.

“I’m happy for the players and the staff,” the Gator head coach said after receiving a standing ovation. “The players work hard and it paid off. No coach throws a pitch or swings a bat. You just hope you can prepare the players the best you can and send them out there.”

Hosted by former Gator baseball player and current color commentator on the radio broadcasts Jeff Cardozo, the stars of the team were interviewed near home plate while their teammates sat behind them.

“You were asked to be a starter, a reliever, come out of the bullpen, just about everything for this club,” Cardozo asked Pitcher Brady Singer who set a CWS record with 12 strikeouts in the first game against LSU.

“I didn’t mind,” Singer deadpanned. “It seemed to work out,” he added to laughter from the crowd.

Playing in big games was nothing new for the 2017 Gator squad. From their SEC schedule to the conference tournament, through the NCAA Regional and the Super Regional, Florida played in numerous elimination games and got clutch hitting all along the way. In the College World Series for the sixth time in the last eight years, they were familiar with the trip to Omaha but admitted nothing prepares you for the championship round.

“Nothing prepares you for 25,000 screaming LSU fans,” shortstop Dalton Guthrie said with a smile. “But we played in big games all year. Elimination games, all of it. We just tried to stay with it and not get too ahead of ourselves.”

With an intentional walk, Jacksonville’s Christian Hicks from The Bolles School made an appearance in the deciding game. He had a feeling they’d put him on as he walked to the plate but was happy to get a chance to be in the game.

“I figured they’d pinch-run for me but I was glad to be out there,” the second-year player said. Hicks echoed his teammates saying they were prepared for whatever came their way in the final matchup.

“All those one run games we played this year I felt like we were totally relaxed out there,” Hicks said. “Playing in the SEC and those stadiums that are really hard to play in kept us from getting rattled as much as other teams.”

Along with the sixth time in O’Sullivan’s tenure that the Gators have advanced to the College World Series, it was their third in a row and the first time they’ve won the title. It puts them in elite company with a handful of other schools that have won a football, basketball and baseball national championship. But Florida is the only school to accomplish that feat in the last 50 years and their titles in those three sports have all happened in the last decade.

It’s the 39th NCAA title for the University of Florida, the first coming in 1968 in Men’s golf. In the last three weeks besides the baseball title, the Gators have won NCAA Championships in women’s tennis and men’s outdoor track and field.

And with the pitching staff O’Sullivan has coming back for 2018, it’s possible we could see a repeat of this celebration a year from now.

Gators Baseball National Champs

While college baseball’s reputation is for high-scoring games and lots of long balls, the Florida Gators won their first national championship with solid fundamentals. Pitching, defense and base-running all played pivotal parts of Florida’s season, none more important than in the two wins over LSU in the national title round in Omaha.

A combination of Alex Faedo and Brady Singer as back-to-back starters proved too much for LSU, previously undefeated in the CWS championship round.

“I’m so happy for our players,” Gators head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said after the 6-1 win and a two-game sweep of LSU. “It’s all about them for all of their hard work. We always knew there’d be one first team (to win it) and I’m glad it was this one. This is a gritty group.”

It was pretty routine to start for Florida, bottom of the first with runners on first and 3rd, JJ Schwarz singled to left to score Deacon Liput to give the Gators a 1-0 lead.

In the bottom of the 2nd, Nick Horvath scored from second on a Liput single up the middle to give them a 2-0 lead.

Holding a 2-1 lead in the top of the 7th, LSU put runners on 1st and 3rd with no outs. Michael Papierski hit a grounder to second and Florida turns the double play with the tying run apparently scoring from 3rd. But LSU’s Jake Slaughter was called for interference at second base, sending the runner back to third. Slaughter didn’t slide directly into the base and the second base umpire called interference immediately. Call it a bad rule or a bad call but the rule was enforced and Florida got out of the inning with a one-run lead.

Again in the 8th, LSU had runners on the corners but first baseman JJ Schwarz fielded a ground ball flawlessly and threw out Kramer Robertson at the plate who was going on contact to maintain the 2-1 lead.

Adding four insurance runs in the bottom of the 8th, the Gators took a 6-1 lead to the ninth inning. Jackson Kowar got the final out and Florida won their first national baseball championship, joining just a handful of schools who have won national titles in football, basketball and baseball.

And the Gators are loaded for the future with Freshman pitcher Tyler Dyson and starter Brady Singer coming back next year. Dyson went six innings in the deciding game giving up three hits and just one run in only his second start as a collegian. Singer is considered the best player in college baseball returning for 2018 and could easily be the top pick int eh MLB draft next year.

“We always thought we had a shot with our class,” said the CWS Outstanding player, pitcher Alex Faedo. “(Pitching) has been the bread and butter this year and the hitters showed up here (In Omaha) to get us enough runs.”

Bortles Knows This Is It

In his fourth year in the league, Quarterback Blake Bortles knows this is his last chance with the Jaguars. A typical rookie year was followed by great improvement but last year he, and the team fell apart. The Jaguars picked up the fifth year of his rookie deal, meaning if he proves he’s the right guy in 2017, they have a bargain the next year. If not, they can move on without penalty.

Perhaps that’s given Bortles more focus in this off-season, or maybe it’s just the change in his coaching staff. Either way, the Jaguars quarterback has spent the offseason working with quarterback experts on the west coast, trying to give himself the best chance at success.

“Two years ago, I went out there and last year, I stayed here the whole time,” Blake said without mentioning that after 2016 the Jaguars asked him to stay in town and throw with the receiving group.

“It just shows that guys are sick and tired of being below average and not being successful when we feel as though we have the ability to be a good team. We haven’t been. It’s time to make a change. It’s not going to happen overnight. You have to go do something about it.”

Between the mini-camp and the beginning training camp, Bortles will be back on the west coast, continuing to work on things he thinks he needs after four weeks of work in Jacksonville.

“I think it will definitely be more specific” he said, explaining what he’ll do out there in his second visit. “In the offseason one, or whatever you want to call it — February, March April — it was mechanic-based. ‘Let’s fix this, let’s make sure this is sustainable and can remain consistent.’ Now, I’ll go out there with some more descriptive things. ‘Here’s what I felt like I struggled with footwork-wise and throwing this route. Here’s what I’d like to get better at. Here’s something that was new, I’d like to just rep it.’ I think it’ll be a bit more dialed-in.”

Drafting Leonard Fournette is supposed to signal a culture change for the Jaguars offense. More run-oriented, less reliant on Bortles being able to keep drives going with the pass. He’s on board with all of that.

“You’d like to think that if you throw the ball less, you commit less turnovers, have a higher completion percentage, all that. That’s all stuff that comes along with it. You still have to, from a quarterback perspective, still continue to make decisions and deliver the ball where it needs to be.”

And in the mini-camp, the focus was on “situational football” trying to simulate the things the team will face when the season starts. None of it is a mystery.

“We’re notorious for going three-and-out on the first possession in the past couple years that I’ve been here,” Blake said with a wry smile. “We have to stop doing that. We have to come out and find a way, from the beginning, and no matter what the situation or scenario is, to find a way to be successful and efficient.”

In order to play at the level they want, the Jaguars coaching staff believes a new level of conditioning and toughness is where to start. Head Coach Doug Marrone said it’s no secret that the Jaguars were getting beat in the 4th quarter of games last year and he wants that to stop. That’s why his version of the OTA’s and the mini-camp were particularly grueling. Bortles thought the Jaguars receivers ran more in the four weeks than they ran in the last four years. “Yeah, I think so,” he said. “Definitely. I think doing all that, getting in shape. I think it’s not necessarily something you like right now. There are some guys that aren’t happy about it. I think that’s how you create a culture and establish the way that the Jacksonville Jaguars practice.”

Almost every sports adage applies to the Jaguars at this point. They’ve been losing games and it hasn’t been fun for anybody. The Jaguars have one playoff win in the last 17 years, so a change, any kind of change would be welcome. Bortles and his teammates in this generation of Jaguars would like to change that.

“I think my goal is for us and this team and this organization is to be very successful. We haven’t for three years since I’ve been here. I think even after that happens, I don’t think anything will change. It’s what I do. It’s our job. It’s my job and my passion. I’m going to do and exhaust every resource I have to be able to make this thing work and get it rolling.”

Marrone, Albert Lynchpins To Jaguars Success

It’s not that Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone is falling into what Tom Coughlin believes a team needs, it’s that Marrone believes the same things. And he has for a long time.

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all,” he said this week after another “activity” that was long on conditioning and not much else. Marrone says the team needs to be in better shape and they’ve only taken a small step in that direction.

“For us, in order to be a tough, physical team – the first thing you have to do is you have to be in shape,” Marrone said this week. “You have to be strong. You have to withstand the mental toughness because in this profession the day you walk in is probably the healthiest you’ll be and the day you start practicing everyone has something.”

‘Wow, this is where we are,” he explained. “You feel where we have to be at. We have a long way to go.’ I think now there is a vision of where we need to get to as far as being in shape, how strong we want to be, how fast we want to practice, how many plays we want to get run.”

That was the theme of the mini-camp on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of this week. Setting a goal of running about 100 plays per practice meant an up tempo two hours and an accelerated pace over the three days. Marrone told the players when they left Thursday afternoon that they need to continue to build their stamina and strength leading up to training camp. The end of July will be no time to work yourself into it according to Marrone’s message.

“We’re going to have to make some decisions, we’re going to have to make them quick, you better come in here ready to go because if you’re not ready to go and you’re thinking it’s going to take me a little while to get this thing going before I play, you won’t be in the mix.”

When Branden Albert reported on Tuesday, the first mandatory day for veterans, Marrone continued to hone his image and the Jaguars culture saying “I’m not here to make more friends,” when asked about building a relationship with Albert. “I have enough friends. I’m not about building a relationship. I’m here to win football games.”

Paramount among the things the Jaguars need to fix is the offensive line. Adding the former pro bowler Albert could give the team some options by the start of the preseason. It’s not a stretch to call him the lynchpin in the Jaguars offensive line plans for 2017.

“I think he understands when he comes back he’s going to have to be in much better shape and to be able to go out there and perform,” Doug noted. “He’s a professional so he knows that.”

Entering his 10th year in the league, Albert is a professional and displayed that by showing up for mini-camp and saying that business part of his no-show for OTA’s was over.

“My advisors and everything. We were trying to get the situation straight,” he explained. “It was something, it was business-wise. It wasn’t personal. Now, it’s over with. Now, I get back to work, be the best football player that I can be and move forward to help the Jacksonville Jaguars organization move on.”

Looking to have a competitive contract as a professional athlete is part of the job. Albert’s deal calls for about $9 million this year, well under the going rate for veteran left tackles in the league. But when the Jaguars balked at giving him a new deal, he showed up. But he knows what the other guys are making.

“Yeah, but you’re blessed. There’s not a lot of people even near my situation. You have to put it this way, that I’m one of the best experts at playing left tackle in the universe right now. I take that as a privilege and a blessing. It is what it is. Got to move on.”

When pressed on his contract, Albert was a realist about making $9 million or making zero.

“The market is the market. My situation is my situation. Each situation is different. The situation was presented to me. I can’t do anything to control it. Like I said, at the time, when you see this situation and the market came out, you try to do what’s best business-wise. It didn’t work that way. It’s time to move on. I don’t think I’m underpaid, but when you look at the market at that time and in that situation and you’re being moved around how I was, it’s just a business move. Now that’s over with, it’s time to play football.” Kind of exactly what you’d hope a professional would say.

As far as not being in shape, Albert basically told everybody to relax.

“I’m not worried about it,” he said. “It’s the end of June. It’s not game time yet. I’m just happy to be out here with the guys and with the team, just working. I feel blessed to be here and be back playing football. I’m way more healthy than I’ve felt the last few years. I’m just happy to be here.”

When he showed up, Albert passed his physical and the conditioning test but as everybody knows, there’s being in shape and there’s being in football shape. Executive Vice President of Football Operations Tom Coughlin made sure to give Albert some incentive to be ready when training camp started.

“He said something about my weight,” Albert said with a laugh. “It was more joking around. I believe he’s happy I’m here, working with the guys. I told him, don’t worry about that. I’ll be ready to go when it’s time. I had to take time for myself. It was a long three years in Miami. I took a beating. I think I needed to take a break for myself and get myself together.”

Marrone Unimpressed In OTA’s

“I consider it an activity.”

And with that, Jaguars Head Coach Doug Marrone ended his first OTA’s in Jacksonville, keeping what was going on over the past few weeks in perspective.

Whether he was calling it “pajamas” practice or letting players know they can be cut by not performing during the OTA’s, Marrone was setting the expectations and laying down the culture he expects the Jaguars to follow.

Practices were up-tempo. Lots of running. No breaks and no music. They took the play clock from 30 to 20 to 16 and then to 14 on both offense and defense getting the players used to making decisions quickly and efficiently.

“It’s basically a progression of tempo of trying to get up, trying to get set,” he explained. So, this way, you get yourself immune to doing those type of things and then what happens is during the course of a game, the other team is not going to put you in check-mate, where you can’t get out of it.”

When teams are practicing football, they’re not playing the game. It’s about technique and conditioning, adjusting and reacting. But Marrone is going to try and change that, giving the Jaguars more opportunities in practice where it feels “game-like.” “I think we have to get a little more situational for our players and try to help them out in those situations and spending more time that way.”

As we’ve gotten closer to training camp and Marrone has had his team on the field, he’s revealing more of what he’ll be like as the Head Coach. He’s candid and straightforward with a lot fewer smiles and jokes during his meetings with the media. He already has the training camp schedule laid out, although he might adjust it after seeing what the team needs. And training camp won’t have anything to do with how the team practices once the season starts.

“Zero. None,” he said. “It won’t even be close to what a regular week is going to be like. I’m not going to get into those schedules until late in training camp.”