There was a chill in the air and players slowly made their way for the first official practice of the Florida baseball season. The batting practice balls were glistening in the sun, brand new and begging to be hit.
The field was as perfectly green as it probably will be all season. The stars of last season like Brady Singer and Jonathan India have moved on.
But it’s still the same deal for the Gators. Expectations haven’t changed for a program that has a summer home in Omaha.
It’s just that this year will be a little different.
“It’s a different roster,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We have some older guys and some excellent freshmen. We don’t have a whole lot in the middle.
“The pieces are there. It’s just going to be a work in progress.”
Florida will likely start the season with true freshmen on the corners and definitely with a true freshman in center field in Ocala’s Jud Fabian. The Friday night pitcher — junior Tyler Dyson — hopes to follow in a long line of weekend table-setters, but hasn’t pitched to open a series in his career.
The starting shortstop — sophomore Brady McConnell — started the season there last year but shut it down after nine games with an injury.
The starting catcher — Brady Smith — had a strong freshman campaign but only had seven starts behind the plate.
And while O’Sullivan has his starting rotation set with Dyson, Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich, the bullpen is up in the air other than sophomore Jordan Butler.
“You have to be able to experiment and maybe drop some games to see what you have,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m not afraid to experiment.”
One of the keys for Florida, which starts the season in three weeks (Feb. 15) against Long Beach State, is for the older players to provide the leadership the Gators enjoyed last year with the now-departed players.
“Young guys are going to struggle, that’s just the way it is,” said outfielder Wil Dalton. “You have to be able to bring them along. I know it was that way for me last year. Playing at this level, I’ve never seen some of the things I saw. It was a learning curve.”
That starts with Friday nights as Dyson tries to follow an impressive legacy of starters such as Singer, Alex Faedo and Logan Shore.
“We have had guys to lean on and now they are leaning on us,” Dyson said. “I’m happy to take on that role. If I’m doing my part, that would be huge for me.”
O’Sullivan expects his 12th Florida team to be a little different from last year’s College World Series team and the one before it that won a national title because of the number of freshmen who will play key roles.
“We’ve got some good young players but it’s one thing to do it in practice and you never know until the lights go on,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of success with young guys before. We’re going to go through some growing pains.
“If they perform like they did in the fall, we have a chance to be a pretty good club at the end of the year.”
What: Opening day for Florida baseball
Who: Long Beach State vs. No. 6 Florida
When: 6:30 p.m. Feb. 15
Where: McKethan Stadium
Did you know? Florida started practice Friday. The team will have three weeks of practice before the opener.