Junior catcher Jonah Girand spent a year at Santa Fe College in Gainesville and a year at Seminole State College in Sanford before enrolling at Florida.
Girand even took a year off from baseball and school to work in retail.
In the predawn hours Tuesday, Girand was all smiles after helping lead Florida to 5-2 win over Florida Atlantic in the deciding seventh game of the Gainesville Regional. Florida would not have advanced to its fourth straight Super Regional appearance without Girand stepping up in the absence of Florida senior catcher JJ Schwarz, who has been sidelined the past two-plus weeks with a broken hand.
Girand finished with three home runs and 4 RBIs in UF’s four regional games, while catching all 36 innings, to earn Gainesville Regional Most Outstanding Player honors.
“It’s been great, honestly, this whole weekend,” Girand said. “I was pumped when I was told I was catching the second game. I’ve been pretty fresh all year. So I was able to go out there and catch all 18 (Monday).”
Girand’s third home run in four days, a two-run shot to left off FAU lefty reliever Jordan Poore, put Florida ahead to stay 3-2 in the fourth. The Gators then tacked on two runs with back-to-back home runs from junior third baseman Jonathan India and sophomore right fielder Wil Dalton in the fifth inning.
“What can you say about Jonah Girand’s weekend? Probably biggest reason we won the regional,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
The final out of the winner-take-all game was recorded at 1:18 a.m. Tuesday, with UF closer Michael Byrne striking out FAU left fielder Eric Rivera to complete his 15th save of the season. Freshman Tommy Mace (5-0) struck out two in two scoreless innings of relief to earn the win. Byrne closed the game with three scoreless innings. Game 6 of regional play didn’t start until 5:45 p.m. after a four hour and 45 minute weather delay. Game 7 started at 9:45 p.m.
The Gators (45-18) will host Auburn in the best-of-three Super Regionals this weekend. The two teams will play Saturday and Sunday at noon on ESPN, with a deciding third game, if necessary, at 8:30 p.m. Monday on ESPN. Defending national champion Florida has reached the Super Regionals for four straight years and is vying for its fourth straight College World Series appearance.
“It just shows you Gator baseball, we’re one of the top programs in the nation, we always find a way to host,” India said. “We don’t make it easy on ourselves sometimes, but you know we’ll pull out at the end.”
Like last season against Bethune Cookman, Florida was pushed to an elimination game in regional play after falling 7-4 to FAU earlier Monday evening. Poor pitching and defense doomed the Gators in the first game. Junior righty Jackson Kowar (9-5) allowed seven runs (four earned) on 11 hits in 6 innings to take the loss, while Florida committed three errors behind both Kowar and reliever Andrew Baker. The Gators overcame two more errors in the 5-2 win late Monday night.
“I’m obviously pleased about us moving on to play Auburn next weekend, but we did not play our best,” O’Sullivan said. “We can’t fool ourselves. It’s just facts. We missed signs, made the first out at third, had a pop up in the infield we didn’t call for. We had some defensive miscues.”
Florida trailed 2-0 early in the second game when FAU (43-19) first baseman Gunnar Lambert delivered a two-RBI single against Florida freshman starter Jack Leftwich.
Leftwich settled down after a shaky first inning, allowing just the two runs over four innings.
FAU coach John McCormack said he wished his team could have scraped out another run or two off Leftwich early in the first inning, “he buckled down in the second inning and took it to another level.”
Florida cut FAU’s lead to 2-1 in the third inning on an RBI single by India, but left the bases loaded. That set the stage for Girand. With Nick Horvath on first after a single, Girand belted a 2-1 fastball from FAU lefty reliever Jordan Poore into the bleachers in left field, putting UF up 3-2.
“Jonah has worked so hard all season, even in the fall, he was our best hitter in the fall,” India said. “He works at it, he works at his craft and now it’s paying off, now he has a chance to play and he’s showing why he should play.”
Girand said taking a year off from baseball and working in retail made him realize how much he missed the game.
“The year off was definitely a wake up call as to how much I really wanted it,” Girand said. “It was good for me in that sense.”
After getting his Associate’s Degree at Seminole State, Girand got into UF on his own and was slated to be UF’s bullpen catcher this season. But an opportunity opened when Schwarz went down with a broken hand during UF’s final regular season series at Mississippi State. Girand has taken advantage of it.
“I thought he would be a bullpen catcher,” O’Sullivan said. “He turned out to be better than that and he hit the ball really well in the fall … it’s a great story.”
EXTRA BASES: In addition to Girand, five other UF players made the all-regional team — India, Dalton, pitcher Brady Singer, second baseman Blake Reese and shortstop Deacon Liput.
At Alfred A. McKethan Stadium
Florida 13, Columbia 5
Jacksonville 5, FAU 3
FAU 11, Columbia 2, CU eliminated
Florida 3, Jacksonville 2
FAU 12, Jacksonville 7, Jacksonville eliminated
FAU 7, Florida 4
Florida 5, FAU 2, Florida advances