Top 10 significant stories in Gator sports
Published: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2014 at 8:43 p.m.
I was at lunch with a friend about three weeks ago and he said, “So, things have calmed down for you.”
And, of course, I told them they hadn't. There were still baseball regionals and softball Super Regionals and possible College World Series implications. It wasn't until track and field finished up Saturday that the calendar for writers covering Florida flipped a page.
That's our year — from the first pressers to the last event.
Now, yes, things have calmed down. For a full month! And then we're off to Hoover, Ala., for SEC Media Days.
Nobody is complaining here. You cover UF, you're going to have a lot going on and that sure beats covering a school that can only wonder what March Madness or celebrating a national title or hoisting a trophy under confetti rain feel like.
Not all of the stories are fun ones and not all of them are good news. But over the last UF sports calendar year (from the middle of July to the middle of June), these were the 10 most significant stories for the Gators. Well, at least they were to me.
1. Finally, the Final Four.
OK, you may be scratching your head right now. How can not winning a national title be better than winning two? No offense to softball or gymnastics, but the basketball run to Dallas was the story of the year.
It generated the most excitement and had the most people smiling. To watch a group of players embrace the team concept and execute it and to watch a local guy like Scottie Wilbekin be so clutch game after game and to just feel the energy in the air whether you were in Gainesville or Orlando or Memphis, that was the story of the year.
Sure, it ended badly. But it was still amazing.
2. Hannah and her sisters.
Tim Walton kept plugging away. He kept recruiting and coaching and he kept getting there. He kept going to Oklahoma City knowing that it would one day happen.
And then it did.
Led by Women's College World Series MVP Hannah Rogers, the Gators were more than OK in the OKC. They dominated the series, sending the Pac-12, Big 12 and SEC pitchers of the year to the showers early.
“It wasn't easy,” Walton said after the team returned to Gainesville, “but they made it look easy.”
3. They floored 'em.
Florida was one of the favorites heading into the NCAA gymnastics championships in Birmingham, Ala. After all, the Gators were the defending champs.
But they hadn't shown championship form in the SEC championships or the regionals. Florida coach Rhonda Faehn wanted to make sure her team was healthy for the one that counted.
The Gators rallied thanks to super-clutch performances on the floor from Kytra Hunter and Bridgette Caquatto, both with 9.95s, to tie Oklahoma and share the title. Alabama had two falls on the beam and couldn't hold its lead.
“Everybody was jumping on me. It was exciting,” Caquatto said.
4. The punch line.
The season was already a disaster when Georgia Southern came to town for the 11th game of the season. A bowl trip had already been squandered, but at least Florida doesn't lose to FCS teams.
The Gators lost to a team that didn't complete a pass. It was embarrassing for the program, the head coach and the players and kind of put an ugly bow on the 2013 season.
If just losing wasn't enough, there was the video of two Florida players — Jonotthan Harrison and Quinton Dunbar blocking each other on a running play. Forget that the play picked up a first down and Florida would score a touchdown on the drive — this was evidence of Florida's buffoonery.
It was the low moment for Will Muschamp's three seasons, but athletic director Jeremy Foley was not budging on his decision to bring Muschamp back for another year no matter how many people asked him.
5. The perfect team.
These were separate stories — the Final Four run and the 21-0 SEC record — even if they were part of the same amazing streak. (Every day of distance that is created from the 30-game winning streak will make it that much more impressive.)
It was historic and mind-boggling for this Florida basketball team to go undefeated in the SEC through the 18-game regular season and then win the SEC tournament in Atlanta.
For all of the talk that the conference was down, remember this — Kentucky played in the national championship game. Florida beat the Wildcats three times. Tennessee made it to the Sweet 16. Florida beat the Vols three times.
The Gators cut down the nets after handling Kentucky at home to end the regular season and again after winning the tournament. It doesn't get much better than that.
6. Good, bad and ugly.
How do we explain the Florida baseball team? Classic overachievers who managed to underachieve? A team that played to the level of its opponents? A feel-good story that felt bad at the end?
Amazingly, a Florida team with one consistent starting pitcher, a soft lineup and an erratic shortstop managed to win the SEC and 21 games in the conference, reached the tournament final and was the No. 2 national seed in the NCAA tournament.
That was the good.
The bad was the first loss to Florida A&M and mid-week losses to Jacksonville and Florida Atlantic.
The ugly was a two-and-barbecue in a rain-soaked, often-delayed NCAA regional at home.
But in the end, this team swept FSU and LSU. That's pretty memorable.
7. The end of an era.
I knew Buddy Alexander was frustrated with his sport and ready to try something else from several conversations we had. It was clear he was ready to step away soon.
I just didn't know how soon.
Alexander retired as Florida's golf coach and took with him a legacy that will last forever.
His two national titles were impressive as were the number of golfers who he guided to the PGA Tour. But if you really want to know about Stewart Alexander, talk to any golfer who played for him. Not just the pros, but the guys making a living working at banks or selling real estate.
8. Four days from hell.
Nobody is trying to make excuses here. I mean, 4-8 is 4-8.
But the story of the Florida football season was defined by those four days when the Gators lost their quarterback and their best defensive player.
Jeff Driskel was lost for the season with a broken ankle against Tennessee. On the following Tuesday, Dominique Easley tore an ACL making a simple cut during practice.
The loss of talent was devastating. The loss of the team's two leaders was catastrophic.
9. The saddest day of all.
It was one of those days that made you want to cry. When you heard the news that Florida diving coach Donnie Craine had died in a boating accident, it was stunning and terrible and numbing all at the same time.
Even if you weren't close to him, all you had to do was talk to anyone who was to understand how much he is missed every day.
“You'll never meet a nicer guy than Donnie Craine,” UF swim coach Gregg Troy said.
10. Joker gone wild.
It has become almost an annual occurrence. Out of the blue, Florida loses a football coach.
This time it was Joker Phillips who “resigned” (and I cannot put enough sarcastic quotations around that word) a month before SEC Media Days. That means sixth-year senior Andre Debose will be working with his sixth receivers coach since he arrived at Florida. And that coach will be Chris Leak, who has yet to coach in college and didn't play the position.
We shall see how this unfolds because I believe receiver is the most important position on the 2014 Florida football team.
But that is for next year's column.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.
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