The Gators have reached the final phase of the 2011 college baseball season.
On Friday, all eight teams participating in the 2011 Men’s College World Series will pose for group photos in front of the iconic “Road to Omaha” statue outside of TD Ameritrade Park, formerly located at Rosenblatt Stadium.
The statue depicts three players lifting a teammate on their shoulders, capturing the moment of elation college baseball players experience when clinching a berth in the CWS.
The Florida baseball team (50-17) understands the emotions expressed in the statute after advancing to the CWS in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history. The Gators celebrated in dogpile fashion after defeating Mississippi State in the Gainesville Super Regional last weekend.
Several UF players have said that last year’s team was satisfied to participate in “The Greatest Show on Dirt,” but this year’s team has a larger goal in mind.
“Last year, I hate to say it, but everyone was kind of happy we just got there,” Florida senior second baseman Josh Adams said on Tuesday. “This year it’s different because everybody knows we expected to be there.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re thrilled we’re going, but it’s just that little thing in the back of your mind where we knew we were going to be at this point and we’ve got to stay focused on the task at hand.”
Florida sophomore catcher Mike Zunino was happy to play on college baseball’s biggest stage as a freshman.
“I think last year we were just really excited to get there,” Zunino said. “It was a big step for us. I think we took that for granted and this year we’re definitely going to keep in mind what our goal is and hopefully stick to that.”
The Gators have a clear goal of winning five games and winning the CWS for the first time in the program’s history.
“We’re happy to be back, but we’re not satisfied yet,” UF sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana said. “We’ve got a lot to prove still. We’re looking forward to getting there and winning this time.”
The Gators returned 12 players who started at least one of the two games from last year’s CWS.
“Last year we were just happy to get there,” Fontana said. “Most of the team was there last year. Most of our starters we there last year. We’re looking forward to going there, but not just going there. We have another goal in mind and that’s to win it all.”
On the way to the airport following elimination from the 2010 CWS, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan took two pages of notes on what to do differently if the team returned to Omaha.
“We had a meeting (Monday) night,” O’Sullivan said. “We went over all the extra stuff. The hotel, tickets, when we’re leaving, getting prepared to get packed. Just the detailed stuff that kind of crept up on us last year. I think what happened last year, we prepared ourselves the whole week that, I wouldn’t say we were satisfied with the season, but that was almost like the end of the road. They were happy to get there. This year I’m hoping that they understand that we still have one more step to take and it’s going to be very difficult. For me, personally, it felt like everything was rushed when we got out there. The next thing you know it was the fifth inning and we were down. I just thought to try to do the best job we could this year was to start (Monday) night to prepare ourselves for Saturday night.”
Florida sophomore pitcher Hudson Randall is expected to start for the Gators against Texas (49-17) on Saturday at 7 p.m. ET (ESPN).
“I’m maybe overly excited this time,” Randall said. “Last time going into it we were just pretty pumped about the opportunity to go out there. We were kind of thinking maybe we fulfilled our season with just a trip there last year. This year we’re looking forward to getting more out of it and going up there and taking care of business this time. It’s not a vacation this year.”
Randall said that Monday’s team meeting showed that all of the players and coaches were accountable for last year’s CWS losses, something that will help the team this year.
“(O’Sullivan) took some of the blame, just as well as we did, last year,” Randall said. “We were all just excited to go. This year we’re definitely approaching it with a more business-like approach and definitely going out there and trying to take care of business.
“Our goal was definitely not just to get there. We were very dissatisfied last year with our outcome, just two games and out. We have a year under our belt, we have the experience under our belt now and we know what to expect. This go-round will be a little easier because we know what to expect. Hopefully we’ll get more out of it this year.”
Florida junior Daniel Pigott appeared in both games the Gators played in the 2010 CWS, including a start in the Gators’ loss to Florida State.
“I’m excited to be back,” Pigott said. “I think that we’re looking forward to a better outcome than last year. I think the mood’s right in the locker room. Everybody’s ready to go and everybody’s excited.”
Pigott said that the team meeting was centered on the Gators’ goals of winning the 2011 CWS.
“(O’Sullivan) made sure to single out that it’s definitely a different focus than last year,” Pigott said. “Last year we were kind of overwhelmed by it. Nobody in the locker room had ever been there. Everybody was just excited to get there. I think we didn’t go into it with the right mindset. I think that this year that we’re focused and we’re ready to go. Winning it all is the ultimate goal. We’re not going to be happy until we’re finished.”
O’Sullivan acknowledges that one team meeting won’t be enough to win a national championship.
“I think it’s a process,” O’Sullivan said. “You can’t just give one speech and then be done with it. It started (Monday) night when they left the clubhouse. It carries over to practice, it goes into the night and tomorrow’s practice. I don’t think it’s a one-speech thing. It’s staying the course, staying with what you’ve done all year long that’s helped you be successful and just not deviating from that.”
O’Sullivan participated in the CWS as an assistant coach at Clemson, but said the experience changes when in a head coach position.
“I was out there three times as an assistant,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s totally different, the responsibilities of a head coach. I think it’s his responsibility to help prepare his team the best that he possibly can. That totally falls on my shoulders. That’s something that I learned from experience last year. Hopefully, we can do a better job this year.”
The Gators arrived on Wednesday in order to have a full practice at Creighton University on Thursday.
“I think it’s important to go out there and practice one day,” O’Sullivan said. “Last year our only practice was the 45-minute session that they gave us on the game field.”
Florida will have a similar practice session at TD Ameritrade Park today at 12 p.m. ET, then return for the opening ceremonies later in the evening.
“We probably should have had a meeting after the opening ceremonies,” O’Sullivan said about last year’s experiences. “We got on the bus, boom, the next thing you know everybody is off the bus and we’re playing the next day. We’ll try to do as much as we can to keep things as consistent as we’ve done all year long.”
Despite having experienced the activities surrounding the games, this year’s event will have a different level of excitement as the College World Series moves to the new stadium. Capacity crowds are expected for every game and the opening ceremonies.
“We didn’t really know what to expect going in last time,” Adams said. “We show up, and there’s 20,000 people already in the stands for opening ceremonies and it’s kind of like ‘Holy cow, we’re used to maybe 3,000 here.’ We know what to expect. The guys that were there last year can help the younger guys like Karsten (Whitson) and some of the freshman that haven’t been there. Just having that factor that we’ve been there before will definitely help.”
The Gators will sign autographs for fans following the batting practice and television interviews.
“Once you get there, you’re constantly doing stuff,” Zunino said. “You have practices, you have media stuff, you sign autographs, all that type of stuff. It’s really never-ending, you constantly do all that type of stuff. I don’t think we were prepared mentally last year for all of that. I think this year we’re going to be ready to go.”
Florida sophomore pitcher/first baseman Brian Johnson was cleared to play this weekend after missing the last two weekends with a concussion suffered during the SEC tournament.
UF sophomore Austin Maddox, who has played first base, third base, designated hitter and served as the team’s closer during the past two months, suffered a foot injury during the Gators’ first game of the Regional on June 3. He missed the remaining games of the Regional, and sat out the Super Regional games against Mississippi State last weekend with his left foot in hard cast.
“The cast was to stabilize the injury and help it heal quicker,” O’Sullivan said. “(Maddox) is a big part of our team, Johnson as well. They are two huge components of our success this year. I’m not foolish. I know for us to win this thing that it would give us a better chance to win it if we have those guys back.”
A team source confirmed that Maddox had the cast removed and pitched during the Gators’ practice on Thursday and will take batting practice on Friday.
Florida junior right fielder Preston Tucker has batted in the heart of the Gators’ lineup with Johnson and Maddox all season.
“We’d love to have them back,” Tucker said. “The lineup is not the same without them. We know how they can perform and how much more comfortable it is with them in the lineup or on the mound, but guys have stepped up. We’ve had guys come in there and do just as good a job as anybody. We’re looking to succeed, so it would be great to have them back.”