Surviving the imperfect storm
Baseball team's success one year left it limping the next
Published: Saturday, February 1, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 4:05 p.m.
UF baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan was fresh from three straight trips to Omaha for the College World Series as he stood on the playing service on McKethan Stadium and discussed his 2013 team. When he was finished, he and I walked towards the dugout.
“Just get me there,” he said. “Just get me to a regional. Anything can happen.”
That's all he was asking of a team that had been delivered crippling blow after crippling blow. Get to a regional and you never know.
But the blows kept coming. And when his team did make it to the NCAA postseason, it turned out that the “anything can happen” was the unthinkable.
A program that had been considered among the elite in college baseball under O'Sullivan suffered a losing season. The two heartbreaking losses in the Bloomington, Ind., regional (4-3 to Austin Peay and 5-4 to Valparaiso) capped a five-game losing streak to end the season at 29-30.
There was irony in that Florida would not have had a losing season if its five-year streak of postseason play had been snapped. But O'Sullivan, who is entering his seventh season as the Florida head coach, would rather have had a losing season than one without an NCAA appearance.
“Heck yeah,” he said. “Look, I'm not used to losing. It was tough. But we wanted to keep the streak alive. I want to be at Florida for 30 years and have the kinds of streaks the other schools have.”
Last year was a year of the imperfect storm for Florida baseball. College teams are often hurt by players leaving after their junior years or signing with professional teams out of high school rather than honoring their commitments to college baseball.
Florida was hammered on both ends. The Gators had seven incoming freshmen and six juniors turn pro.
“Never seen it like that before,” O'Sullivan said.
Add in the loss of starting centerfielder Tyler Thompson, who quit just before the season, along with three key pitchers to injuries, and it was a recipe for disaster.
A lot of people saw it as a speed bump for the program. In reality, it could be a launching pad. The players who were expected to be role players a year ago gained valuable experience as starters. UF wasn't hurt badly by the draft on either end in 2013. The freshmen who were pushed out onto the big stage like unprepared understudies are bigger, stronger and leathered from their experiences.
As a result, O'Sullivan feels as though his program is back where it needs to be for the 2014 season.
“I learned a lot about myself last year, too,” he said. “I learned a lot about adversity. And I was proud of last year's team for being able to grind it out and get to a regional. I felt we got the most out of our players.
“We're going to keep knocking on the door and one day we'll break through.”
Last year was the perfect example of why I think baseball coach is the toughest head coaching job at schools like Florida. You start out with just 11.7 scholarships for a team of 27 players. No other sport on campus has such a disproportionate number of scholarships to players.
That means you have to find players who can afford to pay a decent amount of their way to school. There are a lot of guys who have delivered big pitches or hit long home runs while getting only books and breakfast while the scout team tailback or 12th guy on the bench in basketball is getting a full ride.
But that's just the beginning. You can sign the greatest class in the world but it had better not be too great or those players will be signing big deals with major league teams. And the kid you think is a lock to come to school can find an extra five miles an hour on his fastball and suddenly be picked in the top 10 rounds.
When Andy Lopez was the Florida coach, he used to talk about junior leadership. It's rare to find senior leadership because it's rare to find seniors who are good enough to be in your starting lineup. If they were good as juniors, they usually bolt for the big leagues.
So every college baseball coach has to be organized and always two steps ahead of reality, constantly planning for what-ifs and dealing with junioritis, that infectious disease that strikes third-year players who know they are leaving and don't want to strain anything.
Last year, everything that could go wrong did for O'Sullivan, and we saw how a program just two years removed from playing for the national title could suddenly be hard to watch.
But that's over. The imperfect storm has passed. In 2014, we'll see what it left behind.