OMAHA, Neb. — With video recorders and digital cameras in their hands, the Florida baseball team poured off the bus Friday afternoon at Rosenblatt Stadium, the Holy Grail of the College World Series.
The first destination was obvious. It’s the monument outside the stadium that greets fans, teams and anyone else entering the hallowed grounds of college baseball. The statue depicts a dog pile after a team won the national championship.
It is almost as historic as the stadium itself. And the Gators flocked to it—all smiles from the long season that paid off with the program’s first trip to the College World Series since 2005.
“I think I took like 12 pictures with it,” Florida junior second baseman Josh Adams said. “You see it all the time on TV, but to see it in person, it means that we got here.”
The players lined up in rows in front of the statute, taking glances over their shoulder every few minutes to make sure the moment was real. They smiled for the flashes, but some still lingered.
It was a moment they dreamed about from the time they committed to Florida. When they put pen to paper on their letter of intent, it seemed close.
Now the moment in front of that statue will never be forgotten.
“That’s something I’ve dreamed about since I’ve been playing here and since I was a little kid actually,” senior center fielder Matt den Dekker said. “It was a great moment to enjoy with all my teammates, some of them that I’ve been with for four years here.”
From the statue, the team crept in through the front gate of the stadium. The pace was relaxed, while most players looked straight up, as if they were in the front row of a movie theater, to the top of the stadium where the sign read “Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium.”
The Gators walked through the black iron gates, which were overshadowed by the bright blue structure of the stadium. The concession stands at the entrance, offering Philly steak sandwiches and ice cream, were busy preparing for their busy two weeks to come.
Past the program stands, Florida walked through the concourse and up a narrow ramp into the stadium. The field was now in sight.
Those 7 a.m. conditioning sessions in the fall and the late-night practices in the spring suddenly felt worth it.
“Speechless,” Adams said of his reaction. “It’s one of those places where you can look it up online and see it on TV, but it really can’t be compared to anything. When you’re here, you get goose bumps like you’re a little kid again.”
Florida State was practicing, and the Gators took their seat in the bleachers down the left-field line to relax.
Once the Seminoles cleared the field, the Florida workout began. It started out with the infielders taking ground balls while the outfielders took fly balls.
Batting practice followed and went until the end of the 50-minute practice session. Austin Maddox added in the tape measure shot of the day, landing 25 rows deep in left field and falling just short of the scoreboard behind the stands.
Meanwhile, den Dekker was getting better. He lined up in his usual center field perch, trying to catch his bearings for the weekend. Rosenblatt Stadium can play as a pitcher’s or hitter’s park, all depending on the way the wind was blowing. There are no crazy diversions in the outfield, just a 408-foot fence that is tall enough to making robbing a home run difficult.
“You can see the ball well out there,” den Dekker said. “I’m looking forward to getting out there. The wind can blow in and it can be a pitcher’s park, but I heard it can blow out sometimes as well. It’ll play both ways.”
The stands had more people watching practice than most schools have at a home game. Kids sprinted through the outfield stands trying to catch home run balls, while others stood in the first row to beg Florida players to throw them a ball. It was an atmosphere that mimicked that of a Major League Baseball game.
“I knew they (his players) would be excited,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “The atmosphere here is second to none. There’s a bunch of smiles on the guys’ faces. They’re enjoying every second of it, which they should.”
The Gators were able to relax at the team hotel after Friday’s practice, only to return for Friday night’s opening ceremonies.
But as soon as the ceremonies are over, the mental challenges begin. The Gators play Saturday at 7 p.m. EST against UCLA, so they have a small window of time to move from soaking up the moments in Omaha to getting their minds ready to play.
“We’re going to talk to them (Friday) on the bus after the opening ceremonies,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s not that you try to control everything as far as what the players think, you’ve just got to contain it the best you can. We played one of the toughest schedules in the country. We’re battle-tested.”
The pitching matchup was also officially announced on Friday. Florida will start sophomore left-hander Alex Panteliodis (11-2, 3.26 ERA) and UCLA will go with sophomore right-hander Trevor Bauer (10-3, 3.02 ERA).
ESPN will broadcast Saturday’s game, with Mike Patrick doing play-by-play and Robin Ventura as the analyst. Florida graduate Erin Andrews is the field reporter.