Top-seeded Gators have handled pressure in returning to Omaha


Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan, second left, sits in a dugout with players during practice at TD Ameritrade Park Friday.

The Associated Press
Published: Saturday, June 18, 2016 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 17, 2016 at 8:23 p.m.

OMAHA, Neb. — This trip never gets old. That's what coach Kevin O'Sullivan said to describe Florida's return to the College World Series for the fifth time in the last seven seasons.

But there was a different feel as Gators worked out at TD Ameritrade Park on Friday in preparation for their opening game Sunday at 8 p.m. against Coastal Carolina. As the top overall national seed, oddsmakers have made Florida the favorite to win its first baseball national title in school history. Florida is at +180, ahead of Miami (+500), Oklahoma State (+500) and TCU (+600)

The Gators (52-14) have been the No. 1-ranked team for the majority of the season. But does pressure grow now that Florida is so close to the finish line?

“I don't know it if gets amped up any more,” O'Sullivan said. “Obviously, it's been well documented before we even played our first game, the expectation. I think we've handled it fairly well. We've had some spurts during the year where we may not have played our best.

“But I think the SEC schedule has prepared us for this. And we played in some very, very difficult places.”

Florida center fielder Buddy Reed said being ranked No. 1 for most of the season has helped the Gators prepare for being a targeted team.

“It's been on our back the whole year, pretty much,” Reed said. “We've silenced all people, we've accomplished so much already this year. The biggest thing is having fun, leaving the media and all that stuff out of the way and just playing for each other and the people that have put so much into this program.”

That quest will begin when Florida opens CWS play on Sunday night against Coastal Carolina. Junior right-hander Shaun Anderson said he expects the upstart Chanticleers to be hungry to pull off the upset. Coastal Carolina swept LSU to reach the CWS for the first time in school history.

“Everyone wants to beat us,” Anderson said. “Everyone wants to beat the team that's the number one seed. We're going to get everyone's best effort, everyone's game is going to be turned up a notch and I think we're ready for that. And I think we have all the momentum to stop all of their best guys.”

Last season, as a No. 4 seed, Florida was one of the last three teams remaining in the CWS before being eliminated by eventual national champion Virginia on the Saturday before the final series. Florida first baseman Pete Alonso said the Gators can draw from those experiences to prepare for this year's event. Alonso is one of five returning position players on this year's squad. All three of Florida's starting pitchers also are back from last season.

“We know what to expect now,” Alonso said. “We can understand it more. It's an incredible place to play and it's an extremely special feeling. I remember just walking in and getting goosebumps and getting excited because it's a dream to play on that field. To be able to compete and give all I got on that field is so special. I'm going to soak up every little second. I'm excited.”

Of course, the favored and most experienced teams don't always win during the postseason, even in a double-elimination event. Florida, Miami and Texas Tech were the only three super regional hosts to advance to CWS play. Coastal Carolina, TCU, UC-Santa Barbara, Oklahoma State and Arizona all won super regional series as lower-seeded, road teams.

“Tournament baseball, whether it's played at the high school level, the junior college level, the Division I level, you can't predict anything,” TCU coach Jim Schlossnagle said. “If you start predicting it based on the draft or who has been the best team for 14 weeks, it's not going to turn out that way, it's just not. It's about how guys play when they get into the tournament.”

When Florida was the top national seed at the College World Series in 2012, it resulted in a quick exit. Florida lost 7-3 in its opening game against South Carolina. Then, with starter Hudson Randall only able to go one inning due to heat exhaustion issues, the Gators fell 5-4 to Kent State. A dream season with several junior standouts fell short of a national title.

O'Sullivan said he's learned from that experience and a handful of other CWS trips that began when he was an assistant at Clemson and stretched into his nine-year tenure as coach in Gainesville.

“You learn every time you come out,” O'Sullivan said. “And they have to have fun. There's a fine line. We're out here for a reason. That's to hopefully play our best, win a national championship … you just kind of lean on your players and try to get as much feedback from them as you possibly can and just try to put them in the best position possible.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or kevin.brockway@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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