OMAHA, Neb. — The bus holding the Florida Gators is silent. It’s March 19 and nobody dares to utter a word as a chartered bus trucks through dark roads somewhere in Alabama.
The Gators had just been swept in the opening weekend of SEC play, outscored 22-9 by Auburn.
This team was following up teams that went to Omaha. Mike Rivera remembers his freshman year, wide-eyed in Omaha, looking around the clubhouse. Richie Martin, A.J. Puk, Logan Shore, Dane Dunning, Josh Tobias, Pete Alonso and Harrison Bader are all sitting there, favorites to win it all.
“We had the most beautiful team on paper,” Rivera said. “We were the most beautiful team to ever exist.”
That team went 3-2 in Omaha before being unceremoniously bounced from the College World Series by Virginia.
The team in 2016, on paper, was better, deeper, the favorite. That 2016 played the part of the bully, finishing the season undefeated in midweek play for the first time in school history and they arrived in Omaha the favorites to win it all.
Coastal Carolina and Texas Tech ended the Gators’ trip to Omaha before they could unpack their bags.
This season Florida was strong. They always are with Kevin O’Sullivan but, on paper, they weren’t as good as the teams before them.
The sweep at Auburn dropped Florida to 13-8 on the season.
“The only time I got swept in my Florida Gator career,” senior Ryan Larson said. “You kind of take a step back and it brings you back to reality that you’re playing in the SEC and anything can happen on any given day.”
The Gators won its next game but they needed extra innings to beat Stetson. Florida took two out of three from LSU, beat Florida State, went on the road to sweep Missouri and all of a sudden it appears the ship has been righted.
Then last place Tennessee comes to town and takes two-of-three.
“You start to wonder what kind of team we had after that series,” senior Frank Rubio said. “You don’t know if we’re going to make the playoff at that point. That’s truly what the vibe is.”
O’Sullivan has a strict no Twitter policy for his teams. That’s a good thing because social media was abandoning the Gators in April. The series loss to Tennessee made Florida 6-6 in conference play and 21-11 overall. They were still the No. 7 team in the country, but fans weren’t happy with the style of play. Despite the social media policy O’Sullivan has the players heard what was said about them.
“I remember in the beginning of the season people bashing us all the time. We saw it, we heard it, and we read it,” catcher Mike Rivera said. “Talking about how bad we were at the beginning and talking about how we weren’t going to get to a regional, and I was like, ‘OK, keep talking.’”
The Gators went on the road and beat Florida State to sweep the Sunshine Showdown series. They left Tallahassee right after the game, made a pit stop in Gainesville before taking a bus to Jacksonville to fly to Nashville and play Vanderbilt. Quite a trip for a series that started on Thursday night. Florida took two of three from the Commodores, including a 20-8 outburst. But they came home and split the first two games against South Carolina, scoring just one run in the win and two in the loss. That loss dropped Florida to third place, a distant third, in the SEC East standings at 9-8.
Then they went off.
Florida won their next nine games, including sweeps at Georgia and over Ole Miss in Gainesville before USF ended the streak. Still, Florida went on the road to Alabama and swept the Tide before taking two-of-three against Kentucky. That gave them a share of the title and Mike Rivera is still thinking, “keep talking!”
But they weren’t talking. Not about the Gators at least.
Florida earned the No. 3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and the talk was about Oregon State and their incredible season. The LSU Tigers were getting hot and Florida State was playing great baseball. Don’t forget Louisville and Brendan McKay either.
Florida? Same story. They don’t hit and their bullpen isn’t deep enough. No shot.
The Gators were pushed to the brink of elimination by Bethune-Cookman. The doubters shook their head in affirmation of their previous assumptions.
Wake Forest took Florida to a third game in the Super Regional. More nods and “I told you so’s” from the outside.
The Gators came to Omaha without the expectations of those two “most beautiful teams to ever exist,” and they were fine with it.
“I don’t know if there was a defining moment,” O’Sullivan said. “But I did sense that there was a sense of togetherness in the locker room and knowing we’ll never give up.”
Frank Rubio was there for the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He watched closely when Shore and Dunning and Puk threw bullpens. He knew those guys were major leaguers. He wouldn’t take that team over the 2017 club.
“I don’t think I can take those teams. I think this team is different,” he said. “Those teams were great. I loved all the people on those teams but this team was different and we found a way to win.”
Win they did.
Alex Faedo and Brady Singer made sure the Gators started 2-0 for just the third time in Omaha. TCU gave one back with a Friday win but Faedo was nails in the elimination game and sent Florida back to the College World Series Final, a place only two other Gators teams had been before.
Then they made history. A 4-3 win over LSU on Monday night was the first CWS Final game. Those beautiful teams on paper hadn’t done that.
They made history with a 6-1 win over LSU on Tuesday night.
The team that was 0-3, 6-6 and 9-8 in SEC play at points of the season was dog piling in the infield grass, and then hoisting a trophy.
The 2017 Gators were far from perfect. On paper they weren’t as good as the two teams before them. The games aren’t played on paper and it doesn’t account for the relationships that were forged and how hard the guys played for each other.
“We had no quit. We had a bunch of grinders. We just grinded through it and got it done,” freshman Austin Langworthy said.
“We just won the freeking World Series.”