Practice starts for promising UF baseball team

Florida head baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan hits a few fly ball to players during the Florida baseball practice at McKethan Stadium on Friday.

Aaron E. Daye/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, January 29, 2010 at 9:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 29, 2010 at 9:12 p.m.

The sounds of the ping of the bat and the pop of the glove emanating from McKethan Stadium on Friday let everyone know Gator baseball is just around the corner. It was the first practice of what is hoped will be a very special season for UF.

“We are really excited about this year,'' senior outfielder Jonathon Pigott said. “We've been working real hard in the offseason, and we've had some real good competition among the team. We can't wait to get back out there.”

UF is coming off an impressive 42-22 season in which the Gators won the SEC East Division for the first time since 2005, finished just one game behind LSU and Ole Miss for the overall SEC crown, hosted and swept an NCAA Regional, then hosted a Super Regional, where the season ended just two wins shy of a College World Series berth.

With all but a handful of players back and a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in the country, it is no wonder the Gators can't wait to hear the umpire shout “Play ball” when South Florida comes to Perry Field for the Feb. 19 season opener in the first of a three-game series. Florida enters the year ranked No. 7 and No. 9 nationally by Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball, respectively.

“I think the players are awfully excited,” said third-year head coach Kevin O'Sullivan. “They feel as though they have a lot to build on and prove from last year's finish, and they've been working awfully hard.”

Leading the returnees are two-time, first-team All-SEC selection Josh Adams (.342, 8 HRs, 52 RBIs) at second base, SEC Co-Freshman of the Year Preston Tucker (.364, 15 HRs, school-record 82 RBIs) at first and two-time All-SEC Defensive team pick Matt den Dekker in center field. Add in the junior college Player of the Year in 6-2, 200-pound Bryson Smith (.467, 21 HR, 90 RBI), a probable starter at third; returning outfielders Pigott, his younger brother Daniel, and sophomore Tyler Thompson; and UF's highly touted freshmen class and you have the ingredients for a banner year.

“I'm definitely excited,” said Tucker, a preseason All-America pick. “The freshman class is unbelievable. I don't think we have a hole in our lineup at any position.”

Several freshmen have already made an impact, most notably Nolan Fontana from Winter Garden West Orange, the likely starter at shortstop; outfielder Kamm Washington, a left-hander from Boynton Beach Park Vista who led UF in hitting in the fall; and catchers Austin Maddox (6-3, 230) from Jacksonville Eagle's View (a former prep teammate of Adams) and Mike Zunino (6-2, 220) from Cape Coral Mariner.

UF figures to be strong both offensively and defensively, but it's the pitching situation that has O'Sullivan smiling. Sophomores Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Panteliodis tied for the most wins last season (six) as true freshmen, while classmate Nick Maronde led UF in strikeouts with 59. With several strong-armed freshmen and the return of Tommy Toledo, who missed last season recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum, the mound duties are in good hands.

“When we first got here, our goal was to deepen the pitching staff, and that's not done overnight,” O'Sullivan noted. “It takes more than one recruiting class, and we feel good about where we are right now.”

The countdown has begun.

“We've got three short weeks before our first game, so we've got a lot of work to do,” O'Sullivan said. “Today (Friday) is the start of, hopefully, a lot of success.”

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