New start for McConnell, UF baseball

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Florida shortstop Brady McConnell hit a home run in his first game last season against Siena at McKethan Stadium. His freshman season was cut short soon thereafter. [Cyndi Chambers/Correspondent]

Brady McConnell has been through the hype and hoopla of an opening night at McKethan Stadium. So, for a guy who has only 22 college at-bats, you’ll pardon him if he’s taking it as old hat.

And at the same time, maybe as eager as anyone to experience it again.

“It’s a little different this year,” said McConnell. “Last year, I was, for sure, nervous. But I think it’s not me being nervous, it’s me being ready to play.”

Like last season, McConnell will get the opening day start at shortstop. It was a heady beginning for McConnell as a true freshman, starting at the money position and belting a homer in the game.

But something happened in that game that would mean that his first season would almost be a wash.

In his third at-bat, McConnell suffered a wrist injury. He tried to play through it, but shut it down after five starts. Florida’s prized recruit would become a fixture on the bench.

“It got to a point where I couldn’t hold a bat,” he said. “We couldn’t figure out what was wrong.”

McConnell watched the Gators play and tried wearing a cast. Florida got Deacon Liput back from suspension at about the same time that McConnell went out and the Gators made it all the way to Omaha again last year.

McConnell went to enough doctors until one finally found the answer — nerve blockage in his left wrist. So the freshman had surgery following Florida’s season.

“It was nerve-racking (last year),” he said. “I knew if I was healthy, I would be out there, but I took a lot away from it.

“It was tough to sit there and watch. I wanted to be out there. It was my dream to play here. But I think I matured a lot. I think I’ve become more thankful for what I do have on the field.”

Tonight at 6:30 when No. 6 Florida opens the season with a three-game series against Long Beach State, McConnell will be making his second opening-game start at short.

On a young Kevin O’Sullivan team, McConnell will be one of the keys in an infield that will start two freshmen on the corners.

But McConnell? Not a freshman. In fact, he’ll be draft eligible after this season. Florida didn’t even bother to redshirt him last season.

“He won’t be around here for five years,” O’Sullivan said.

This year, he’ll hope to see a McConnell who learned from experience even if most of it was absorbed rather than experienced.

“He doesn’t seem like a freshman to me,” O’Sullivan said. “Sometimes, you learn a lot just by sitting back and watching. You don’t want to lose a whole year, but sometimes you sit on this side of the fence, you maybe have a different outlook on things.

“I’m just glad he’s 100 percent healthy.”

And — O’Sullivan hopes — a little more relaxed on the field.

In his brief time with the Gators last year, McConnell had three hits and three errors. The game can sneak up on a true freshman.

“He struggled a little bit in the fall,” O’Sullivan said. “Since he came back in January he’s a totally different player. He was trying to do too much, trying to cram everything into a six-week fall season.

“But his mind has been clear (this winter). His offense has always been good. His defense is taking shape.”

And ready for Opening Night, Part II.

“We’re definitely anxious,” McConnell said. “We’re ready to play a different team and see a different pitcher. I talked to Sully a lot about slowing the game down a little bit, just realizing you have to take it pitch-by-pitch, game-by-game.

“This is the most prepared I’ve been for a season my whole life. I’m just ready to get after it.”


Today

What: College baseball season opener

Who: Long Beach State vs. No. 6 Florida

When: 6:30 p.m.

Where: McKethan Stadium

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

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