Florida (48-16) and Mississippi State (37-23) both cruised through their respective NCAA Regional, sweeping the competition to set up an NCAA Super Regional matchup this weekend in Gainesville with the right to advance to Omaha and the College World Series 2011 on the line.
For the Gators, the Gainesville Super Regional is just the next step on the way to their season-long goal.
“We’re not going to be satisfied with a loss here or even just getting to Omaha,” junior Daniel Pigott said. “We definitely have the ultimate goal of going to Omaha and doing better than we did last year.”
That goal has been the focus for Florida since opening day, and it’s helped the team stay concentrated on each individual game.
Along the way, the Gators have captured the regular-season SEC title and the SEC Tournament title.
But those accomplishments pale in comparison to making it to Omaha for Pigott and many of Florida’s players.
“There’s nothing like it,” he said. “There’s no experience like it. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life.”
The junior outfielder and designated hitter said the veterans on the team have tried to impress upon the freshman and some of the younger players just how special making it to the College World Series is.
The younger players have bought in and want it just as badly as the vets. Florida can feel its goal getting closer to completion.
“Two games away,” Pigott said. “This is the time of the year that you’ve got to bear down. It’s more than worth it.”
Standing in Florida’s way is a team they’re very familiar with.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs head to town for the NCAA Super Regional, which will begin Friday at noon with live TV coverage on ESPN2.
Florida took three of the four meetings between the two teams this season, having won most recently at the SEC Tournament with a come-from-behind 7-5 win.
The Gators also won two games at Mississippi State after dropping the opener to claim the series.
However, both teams have undergone significant changes since the regular-season series, and the Gators know they can’t look past the Bulldogs.
Three of the four games were decided by two runs.
“They’re a very capable team and very good,” Pigott said. “They’re a scrappy bunch. They’re very talented, so we’re not going to take them lightly at all.”
Led by third baseman Jarrod Parks, who finished in the top five in the SEC in batting average (.365), on-base percentage (.513) and walks (43), Mississippi State cruised through the Atlanta Regional with a 3-0 win over Southern Miss, an 8-3 win over Austin Peay and a 7-3 win over Georgia Tech.
The Bulldogs got arguably their best starting pitching of the season in the NCAA Regional, and Florida knows they’ll play tougher than their three-seed in the Atlanta Regional might have indicated.
“They’re going to battle,” Pigott said. “They’re not going to give in, they’re going to play to the last out. I think that’s their biggest strength.”
While Florida’s capable of beating Mississippi State soundly if the bats stay hot, the Bulldogs are just as capable at keeping the game close if the Gators hit a lull.
Florida beat Mississippi State 18-0 in the second game of the regular season-series, but the other three games finished 7-5 (MSU win), 3-1 and 7-5.
“You can never be comfortable with a couple-run lead,” Pigott said. “You can’t take anybody lightly. They’re very good and anybody can beat anybody on any given day.”
Florida also motored through its NCAA Regional in Gainesville last weekend with a 17-3 win over Manhattan and 5-4 and 11-4 wins over Miami.
In the three-game stretch, the Gators racked up 47 hits. Florida also jumped on its opponents early, scoring 27 of its 33 runs in the first three innings.
The Gators hope to be just as effective in the early going against the Bulldogs.
“We know if we score early that the pitching staff will take care of their end of the deal,” sophomore catcher Mike Zunino said. “We know we have a really good pitching staff, and that’s what we try to do.”
Zunino and the Gators will also have the benefit of playing at home in front of its own fans this weekend in Gainsville after taking on the Bulldogs on the road and in Hoover.
“Just from the dimensions of the field to the fans, it just gives you that little bit of ease knowing that you’re not in a hostile place or field around the country,” Zunino said. “It’s definitely not overrated. Being at home and being able to stay at your own place definitely beats having to be on the road at a hotel or traveling around and traveling in a bus.”
As far as matchups go, not much has been set in stone in terms of who will start on the mound or be ready to play this weekend.
Florida was missing two key players last weekend after sophomore lefty pitcher and designated hitter Brian Johnson was injured in the SEC Tournament with a concussion and sophomore first baseman Austin Maddox sprained his foot midway through last weekend’s Gainesville Regional.
Johnson has returned to practices and is expected to play this weekend, but it’s not clear yet if he’ll be back in the normal pitching rotation.
Maddox, on the other hand, is still day to day with the foot sprain and could miss some time this weekend.
“We hope they’re back, but you never know,” junior pitcher Nick Maronde said. “We played well without them, so that’s huge. We kind of have that in our back pocket, so if they’re not ready to go this weekend we kind of know that we have a good chance without them, too.”
Florida’s normal weekend pitching rotation was sophomore right-hander Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.38 ERA), Johnson (8-3, 3.66 ERA) and freshman Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.42 ERA).
Randall will start on the mound Friday against Mississippi State freshman right-hander Evan Mitchell (6-1, 3.47 ERA).
Junior left-hander Nick Routt (3-3, 3.78 ERA) is expected to take the mound for the Bulldogs on Saturday.
The Bulldogs have started several different pitchers throughout the year, so the third starter could be any number of players.
In the four regular-season meetings, Florida got the most production at the plate from Zunino, senior second baseman Josh Adams and junior right fielder Preston Tucker.
Zunino hit .471 with six RBI, Adams hit .389 with two RBI and Tucker hit .368 with five RBI.
Tucker was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Gainesville Regional, while Zunino was named the SEC Player of the Year for 2011.
The Gators will be looking for continued success from those three at the heart of the order this weekend against the Bulldogs as they try to clear their last hurdle on the way back to Omaha.
“We’re all excited about playing this weekend in the Super Regionals and have a chance to go back to Omaha. Everybody came to college with the goal to win a national championship,” Maronde said. “Our main focus right now is winning the Super Regionals and taking care of business against Mississippi State.”
|2011 NCAA Super Regional: Gainesville Super Regional Schedule|
|Friday, June 10|
Mississippi State (37-23)
|Saturday, June 11|
Mississippi State (37-23)
|Sunday, June 12*|
Mississippi State (37-23)
|* if necessary|