Hold off on Omaha dreams: A gauntlet awaits


The Florida Gators celebrate after defeating Mississippi State 8-6 in the third round of the NCAA college Super Regional baseball tournament in Gainesville, Fla., Sunday, June 12, 2011. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)

Published: Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 7:58 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 7:58 p.m.

It's the only thing you're thinking about as Florida's baseball team prepares to open its 2012 season.

And it's the last thing they should be thinking about.

One word. Five letters.

Omaha.

It's the Holy Grail for college baseball teams, and Florida has made the trip the last two seasons. A year ago, they came so close to winning it all, a fly ball away from taking the first game of the title series only to see South Carolina pull off a stunning win and sweep the Gators in two games.

But Omaha seems so far away right now.

Because the gauntlet awaits.

“With the team we have, we have a good chance of being where we want to be,” said Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan. “But with the schedule we have, we're going to go through some stretches that are not as pleasing as everyone wants.”

It's a brutal schedule, but this is a team equipped to handle it. Of Florida's 56 games, half of them are against ranked teams. The SEC is loaded again this year, and Florida has 10 games against ranked non-conference opponents.

But with America's best baseball conference and the annual battles with Florida State and Miami, that's the way it is for UF a lot of the time.

And it's one reason it won't be difficult for O'Sullivan to keep his team focused on the oldest of cliches — take ‘em one game at a time.

“It's the way it should be every year,” said sophomore pitcher Karsten Whitson. “You should look toward Omaha.”

Omaha is their goal. It's the goal of every team that will lace up the cleats. But it's a goal that needs to be wrapped in tin foil and stored in the freezer.

“It's not easy to get to Omaha,” O'Sullivan said.

It's not supposed to be.

I don't know if expectations have ever been higher for a Florida baseball team. The starting rotation is back. So is most of the starting lineup. Florida is heavy with juniors and seniors but also has an influx of young talent.

Once Preston Tucker came back for his senior season, everyone in college baseball penciled Florida into a return to baseball's mecca.

But the road to Omaha is filled with twists and turns and potholes. South Carolina, which won the last two College World Series titles, isn't going away. Neither is Vanderbilt, which Florida knocked out at the CWS a year ago.

The league is filled with teams that have a chance.

Florida is certainly one of them.

But this team also knows how close it was to being derailed in last year's Super Regional against Mississippi State.

“Coach O'Sullivan does a good job of getting us ready for every game,” said junior Brian Johnson. “We're not worried about Omaha.”

This is a deep team, one of the deepest Florida has had. The Gators have four players who are hitting machines who could line up at first base — Johnson, Tucker, Vickash Ramjit and Austin Maddox. They have a starting rotation that has been through the battles of the SEC.

But you never know about injuries. Last year, Florida was without Johnson for much of the postseason after his concussion and Maddox for almost all of it with a foot injury.

It's not like Florida will fall off the landscape after this season, but we also know it's the last time around for so many of the stars on this team.

You can dream of Omaha.

They can't.

Not yet.

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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