UF baseball sits atop preseason poll


Florida head baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan talks with catcher Mike Zunino and pitcher Alex Panteliodis, right, during a timeout in the fourth inning against Oregon State during the 2010 NCAA Gainesville Regional tournament at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, Florida on Saturday, June 5, 2010.

Aaron Daye/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 11:36 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 2:38 p.m.

The expectations surrounding Florida's baseball team just got a little higher.

Facts

Baseball America poll

1. Florida, 47-17
2. UCLA, 51-17
3. Texas Christian, 54-14
4. Vanderbilt, 46-20
5. Oklahoma, 50-18
Of note: Defending national champion South Carolina is at No. 7, Florida State is No. 12 and Miami is No. 24.

Florida, coming off a 47-17 season that featured the program's first SEC title since 2005 and a trip to the College World Series, is ranked No. 1 in the Baseball America preseason poll, which was released Thursday, for the first time.

The Gators open practice Friday (2:45 p.m. at McKethan Stadium), and their season begins Feb. 18 against South Florida. Practices are open to the public.




As the Gators get their preseason workouts in, there won't be praise or downtime around coach Kevin O'Sullivan. Even after as successful 2010 campaign, the goal of winning a national championship wasn't achieved, leaving Florida with more to prove in 2011.

While Florida may have snuck up on teams last year, everyone is fully aware of what the Gators are capable of. The pressure is squarely on this squad.

"This team is talented and it's going to have a bull's-eye on its back," O'Sullivan said. "We're not taking anything for granted. We're going to work at this thing as hard as we can. We're not going to look at polls. Last year was last year and this year is this year.

"No one is going to hand us anything."

Fortunately for the Gators, they have the star power to make a deep postseason run. Florida returns 22 lettermen, including eight position starters and 11 pitchers, and boasts its third straight top-six recruiting class. Four of those position starters — Nolan Fontana, Mike Zunino, Austin Maddox and Brian Johnson — earned first-team freshman All-America honors. Maddox, who played first and third base, led the Gators with 17 home runs.

Florida also has the luxury of returning its weekend rotation in junior left-hander Alex Panteliodis (11-3, 3.51 ERA), sophomore righty Hudson Randall (8-4, 3.24) and the left-handed Johnson (6-4, 4.03). Johnson was also the designated hitter at times, batting .405 and driving in 21 runs.

"The biggest thing that steps out is we have more depth on the mound than we probably even had last year," O'Sullivan said. "It's not very often that you get back three weekend starters. Usually, you lose one or two to the draft. We've got all three of those guys coming back and we've added some other good pitchers in this class."

One of those additions is freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson. The No. 3 high school prospect by Baseball America went 7-3 with a 0.62 ERA and had a single-season, school-record 123 strikeouts in 55 innings as a senior at Chipley High School in Northwest Florida. He was drafted No. 9 overall by the San Diego Padres in last June's MLB Draft, but decided to attend UF.

The Gators bring back a lineup that mostly contributed to a .474 slugging percentage, with 83 home runs and 408 RBIs. Florida returns four batters with more than 200 plate appearances, three of whom hit better than .285.

O'Sullivan said he's excited about the improvements he expects at the plate, but wants his team's foundation to be on pitching and defense.

"Offensively, that's always going to come, and there are different ways to score runs," he said. "But if you can't pitch or play defense, then obviously you'll be climbing an uphill battle."

Regardless of the talent the Gators have, keeping the players level-headed and focused will be the key to a national championship run.

Senior infielder Josh Adams said the team is even hungrier and is fueled by last year's shortcomings in Omaha, Neb.

"We're playing for another ring," Adams said. "That's the goal, and that's what you have to keep in mind all the time.

"Two-and-out in the World Series doesn't feel good. I'm sure everybody remembers that and we're trying to get the new guys to get that feeling and get on board with us."

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