In aftermath of defeat, Florida baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan heaps praise on players
Fifteen minutes after the conclusion of Florida baseball’s 5-4 loss Monday to Oklahoma, reality was still setting in for UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan. BT Riopelle had struck out in the bottom of the ninth for the final out, simultaneously sending the Sooners to the Super Regionals and concluding the Gators’ season.
Like that, it was over — not only for the 2022 campaign, but for this iteration of the program, which is where much of O’Sullivan's attention quickly turned.
The Gators' run from a disappointing start to conference play to being on the brink of Super Regionals was on the forefront of their head coach’s mind rather than the details of the decisive loss to the Sooners.
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Instead of the game, an emotional O’Sullivan was more concerned he’d forget to mention a member of the team who had made a valuable contribution this season.
“Where we were six weeks ago at 6-12, they were selfless, they paid attention and they were a really tight-knit group. If you followed us closely, you see that they are really close,” he said. “I told them this morning and again tonight that this is one of the most enjoyable years that I have had coaching.”
It marked the conclusion of O’Sullivan’s 15th year at the helm, and the offseason has plenty of uncertainty surrounding it. Clemson University, where O’Sullivan spent eight seasons as the Tigers’ pitching coach prior to taking the Florida head coaching job, is in search of its next head coach following the firing of Monte Lee after seven seasons. O’Sullivan is regularly considered to be a candidate for open jobs — LSU showed interest last season before hiring Jay Johnson away from Arizona — and there’s reason to believe he’d listen to what his former employer has to say if the Tigers come calling. O’Sullivan has been in the game long enough to know questions about his future could occur at any time, so he shut the line of questioning down preemptively Monday night, preferring to keep the focus on the current team.
“I know there will be, probably, questions about next year, but now’s not the time to talk about next year. I mean, right now it’s about this team and what they’ve accomplished,” O’Sullivan said. “This team is a great group to coach, it really was. Some years it’s not the same, but this group was really fun to coach.”
From Wyatt Langford’s unlikely ascension from a seldom-used player during the 2021 season into tying the program record for home runs in a single season, to Jud Fabian’s devotion to the program by forgoing the MLB Draft for one more season, O’Sullivan’s mind was only on the storylines from Florida’s season.
“Jud Fabian, Wyatt Langford, I mean Josh Rivera, unsung. Colby Halter, just a rock. Jac Caglianone coming off a potential redshirt, what he’s provided us offensively,” O’Sullivan continued. “Mac Guscette catching a doubleheader yesterday. BT Riopelle. I don’t want to leave anyone out — Brandon Sproat, like, you guys have all seen where he started his season to where he is now. I hate bringing up names because you always leave somebody out, but — I’m disappointed right now, obviously, as is everybody, but I’m really proud of this team.”
Regarding Fabian, O’Sullivan said “he’s right there with the great ones we’ve ever had” in terms of both his offensive ability and his defensive prowess in center field. That’s just what people can see, however. O’Sullivan has seen an entirely different side of Fabian, and to see him depart was difficult for UF’s head coach to fathom.
“I think, when people want to talk about strikeouts or whatever, there’s other parts of the game. The defensive part, the base-running part, the stuff that goes on behind the scenes, the leadership part,” O’Sullivan said. “This guy made a decision that most of us probably wouldn’t have made. I mean, you get offered a couple million dollars and you’re going to come back to school and better yourself, how can you not appreciate that? That alone tells you how much he loves this place, and he will be missed, he will be missed. Just glad we still have his brother around so I still get to see his dad.”
Then there’s Sterlin Thompson, a potential first-round pick in the upcoming MLB Draft whose sacrifice epitomized the selflessness of the team.
“I said this before the season started, he’s one of the best hitters I’ve ever coached, and I think people now see that this guy’s really, really good and he’s got a long career ahead of him,” O’Sullivan said, “but he could have not been open to moving to second base, but he did. He did what’s best for the team. And Colby (Halter) could have said, ‘Well I feel more comfortable at second’ and not been open-minded to go to third. So we’re making major moves to make our team better, but there was never any kickback from anybody.”
The wins and losses may define the season itself, but in the eyes of those within the program, it’s the people who make the year memorable. Which is why O’Sullivan seemed intent on keeping the focus on the individuals rather than the particulars of the outcome, even those who couldn't actively participate in the turnaround.
“I feel bad for Hunter Barco, I do, I mean, here’s a guy who goes down after the Vanderbilt series, and he was a huge part of our team even though he was injured. He was right there on every pitch. He was involved with the team,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s all you can do as a coach, is coach them up to get better and hopefully see them connect as a group, and then go out there and play the best they possibly can. And they did that.”
UF parts ways with third base coach Craig Bell
O’Sullivan was savoring the moment and reliving recent events, perhaps because he knew it wouldn’t last. The next day, O’Sullivan parted ways with third-base coach Craig Bell, who had arrived in Gainesville with O’Sullivan in 2008. Bell’s departure means the Gators won’t have a veteran assistant — in this case, someone who has been with the team three years or more — for the first time in O’Sullivan’s tenure.
Change happens quickly — on the roster and in the front office — in collegiate athletics, though O’Sullivan made certain to thoroughly express his appreciation for the 2022 team in the aftermath of defeat.
“Just the improvements that they made, there was never finger-pointing. They were connected, they were. You could see it in the dugout. There’s guys who were obviously upset, but it was real, real raw emotions,” O’Sullivan said. “I think those emotions that come out after a loss like that, they’re real, they’re real. Like I said, it was just enjoyable, I really enjoyed it. Guys were selfless, guys stepped up, guys moved here, guys moved there. Ty Evans is going to be a great player — I’m still thinking of names here because I don’t want to leave anyone out.”