Blend of youth, experience has Gators in Omaha

Florida's Ben McMahan (15), fields a ball as the eight teams that make up this year's College World Series lineup took turns practicing on the field at Rosenblatt Stadium. (Kent Sievers/Omaha World-Herald)

Published: Friday, June 18, 2010 at 6:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 18, 2010 at 6:46 p.m.

OMAHA, Neb. - When freshman catcher Mike Zunino first arrived on the Florida campus last summer, his biggest support came from an unexpected source.


College World Series

Who: No. 4 Florida (47-15) vs. No. 6 UCLA (48-14)
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb.
TV/radio: ESPN/103.7 FM


Omaha World-Herald video

- Florida arrives at CWS

Senior catcher Hampton Tignor showed Zunino the ropes, even though the two were battling for a starting position.

"It speaks a lot of him," Zunino said. "He did a great job doing that. I appreciate everything he taught me."

Florida plays UCLA tonight at Rosenblatt Stadium in its first College World Series since 2005. The Gators are here because a group of hardened veterans accepted the talents of the top-ranked freshman class in the nation.

It's been a perfect blend, a mix that's already produced a Southeastern Conference regular season title. Now, Florida (47-15) has its eyes on its first baseball national title in school history.

Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said he was never concerned about the freshmen and upperclassmen getting along.

"We have one goal here and that's to win a national championship," O'Sullivan said. "And it obviously all starts at the top with your senior leaders. Matt den Dekker, Kevin Chapman, Chas Spottswood, I think those guys have done a really good job from day one taking these freshmen in and making them feel part of the club."

The comfort level has allowed UF's freshmen to shine. Freshman slugger Austin Maddox has produced team highs in home runs (17) and RBIs (71) while playing both corner infield positions. Freshman shortstop Nolan Fontana has played terrific defense (only three errors) while providing a spark at the top of the Florida order with a .427 on-base percentage. Behind the plate, Zunino has been exceptional with just two errors while batting .274 with nine homers and 41 RBIs.

"I don't think anyone expected how we were going to play, even ourselves," Zunino said. "We just came out and worked really hard. I mean, the hard work is sort of paying off and we're getting some good opportunities and we're coming through with it."

On the mound, freshman righty Hudson Randall has settled in nicely as UF's second starter with a 2.95 ERA and 11 wins. And freshman designated hitter/pitcher Brian Johnson has been a steady third starter (6-4, 3.97 ERA) while batting .413 with four homers.

"You can't even tell that they are freshmen," said Florida sophomore lefty Alex Panteliodis, who will start tonight against UCLA. "It's just unbelievable the way that they've come in and done their role."

Florida senior closer Kevin Chapman said he had a feeling the season could be special a third-of-the-way into the season, when "the freshmen started not acting like freshmen anymore."

"I've never seen that before," Chapman said. "But I knew we were going to have some success."

Chapman was one of several veterans last summer who took the freshmen under his wing. Chapman said there was rarely an instance when he needed to keep players from the highly touted class in line.

"I'd say they are actually pretty grounded for how talented that they are," Chapman said.

That maturity has allowed the younger players and older players to jell.

"I think we've got a really close group," Florida senior center fielder Matt den Dekker said. "The seniors, the freshmen, I think on the field off the field, are really close. We all hang out together. We play together. That's been consistent. We have really good chemistry and we play as a team."

Said Fontana: "We don't have any separation on the team. We're all really close-knitted."

How UF's freshmen respond to the biggest stage in college baseball remains to be seen. It's a new experience for all of UF's players, considering the Gators haven't been here in five years. O'Sullivan has three years of experience coaching in the CWS as an assistant at Clemson.

"I think once you gets out there, once the game starts, it's amazing you kind of forget the surroundings that you are in," said ESPN college baseball analyst Kyle Peterson. "Sometimes it comes back in a big spot, a guy hits a home run, you kick a ball or something ... but (Florida's) freshman can play. They're in big roles and they have been in big roles all year. Yeah, they might get caught up for it in a little bit, but I think they will settle down once the game starts."

Florida also is confident it will play well in front of crowds of more than 20,000 because it played better on the road this season in front of hostile environments at SEC ballparks. Again, the younger players will be looking up to the upperclassmen for guidance.

"They've helped us just be calm throughout all of this," Fontana said. "This is exciting. They're putting us under their wing and we're enjoying it."

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

▲ Return to Top