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.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

UNF Already Looking Forward

Despite their 81-77 loss in the first round of the NCAA’s to Robert Morris, the UNF Osprey’s are already looking toward next year.

“I’m looking forward for us to do the next right thing,” Head Coach Matthew Driscoll said in his post-game press conference. Driscoll is in his 6th year as the UNF Head Coach and has brought the program to historic heights with their first conference championship, 23 wins during the regular season and their first NCAA’s tournament berth. But it’s about moving forward at this point according everybody involved with the program. That’s no surprise given Driscoll’s attitude and the culture he’s created on the Osprey’s campus and in their locker room.

Beau Beach, the Ponte Vedra High product who had a game-high 28 points including six of ten from outside the arc, says he’s disappointed but not undaunted. “It was a great season overall, and it was the most fun season I’ve ever had. I’ll remember the good over the bad, that’s for sure.”

Returning all but three seniors and one starter, the Osprey’s could be a force in the ASun again next year. “We took a step this year and next year we’ll take another step and try to win a tournament game,” DeMarcus Daniels said in the post-game locker room.

He’s right about that. In a conference that’s dwindled to eight teams, the ASun only gets one bid to the NCAA tournament and it goes to the conference champion. UNF will be the favorite to repeat next year and has the experience and the talent to do just that.

The Ospreys shot nearly 60% in the first half but 21 turnovers, compared to 5 for Robert Morris and missed shots in key situations cost UNF a chance at victory.

“Give them credit,” Driscoll said in his post-game press conference. “Our turnovers were self inflicted and when you give them that chance, it’s really hard to stop.”

Scoring 77 points usually guarantees victory for UNF, but couldn’t clean up the “little things” to get the job done.

“I totally cherish the moment, cause it ends fast, really fast,” Jalen Nesbitt noted.

While Nesbitt won’t be back for another run next year, UNF seems poised to keep this going.

And according to Sophomore Chris Davenport this is just the start. “It’s a stepping stone and we’ll move forward for next year. Hopefully we’ll come out on the other end.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Muschamp vs. The World!

Standing in the back of the “media lounge” (a euphemism for the eating room) behind the Norm Carlson Press Box at Florida Field two years ago, Will Muschamp was introduced to the Gator Nation as their next head football coach. The anticipation was thick and exciting.

Muschamp had been the “coach in waiting” at Texas and was long considered the next great head coach ever since he took his first assistants job. Everybody knew he was intense and demanding. He wanted to win, knew winning from his days as a player at Georgia and as an assistant under Mack Brown.

Gator fans seemed to be anxious to move on from the Urban Meyer era as well. Meyer won, but did it ungraciously and he never embraced being a “Gator.” The fact that he quit the year before only to be talked out of it seemed to wring any enthusiasm out of his final season.

The media was upbeat about the Muschamp hiring as well. After years of Steve Spurrier’s entertaining relationship with those covering Gator football, Ron Zook was fine but no fun and Meyer was so condescending and imperial that the scribes and radio/tv types were ready for him to leave town.

Florida athletics has always had a difficult relationship with the media in general. For years the football program underperformed and was always considered a “sleeping giant” in Bear Bryant’s words. It gave those close to the program a little bit of a complex. Saying the program was under more scrutiny than any other because of the number of newspapers, radio and TV stations, access was fairly limited. While a bit of hyperbole, there’s no question that interest in Florida football was (and is) high in all four corners of the state.

Muschamp was introduced and took the podium as the young, energetic up and coming coach that he was. Fans wanted to embrace him. Heck, the media wanted to like him. (On a side note, covering a big-time college football team is different than covering just about anything else. Most of the “reporters” are either school graduates or fans. Mostly young and eager, sometimes coaches take advantage of that and run roughshod over the ones just trying to do their job.) So as Muschamp began his nearly 19 minute opening statement (the joke was he didn’t take a breath) we heard a lot of the high-minded, motivational things that made him the premier candidate for a big college football job.

Then he said something like, “No matter what you all think here, we’re going to do it our way.”

What?

It was such an upbeat occasion that it didn’t quite register that Muschamp was outlining his idea of what the media’s role would be surrounding his program. He was throwing down the hackneyed gauntlet that they were the team and you’re not. OK, no problem. It’s not going to be the backslapping Charley Pell relationship or the Spurrier show we could look forward to every week. Muschamp’s closing of practices and cut-off of training camp followed his model to the chagrin of reporters and fans alike.

There’s no question there’s a learning curve for assistants who are elevated to the top job in that environment. And give Muschamp credit for adapting a bit, creating a laugh or two during the season and starting to sort out how this coach/media relationship works. That’s why it was almost amusing when after a big win over FSU and the conclusion of a fantastic one-loss season nobody outside of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium expected, Muschamp said, “We didn’t prepare any differently. I know it disappoints you all but we didn’t put this one on the mantle and stare at it for 364 days.”

What?

Disappoints us?

I don’t know of any vendetta somebody has for the Gators head coach. Maybe he uses some imaginary slight or perception of what people think he’s doing as motivation. A lot of people do that to fuel their intensity. Muschamp’s intensity is already legendary. His ability to transform Florida into a contender in one year will be studied by other coaches looking for his secret. He’s a fabulous coach, no question. A bit of work on his public persona and “legendary” is probably in his future.

Nobody’s out to get you Coach. In fact, most of ’em are rooting for you.