When they set out with the No. 1 preseason ranking, there was one goal and one goal only for the Florida Gators. Get to Omaha and win the College World Series.
After they slumbered through conference play, the smell of postseason play has snapped the Gators out of their reverie and reawakened the machine that mowed down good team after good team at the beginning of the year on a 20-1 tear.
The only thing capable of slowing down Florida seems to be rain.
The Gators got more than their fair share of it over the weekend, with more than five hours of rain delays wedging their way between a pair of Florida wins over N.C. State in the Gainesville Super Regional.
“Playing regionals in Florida at 12, 1 o’clock this time of year, you’re asking for these things to happen,” N.C. State coach Elliott Avent said. “There’s some times, I think that old saying ‘you just can’t fight Mother Nature’ (applies). I just didn’t see why we were trying to fight it.”
Rain delayed the second game of the Super Regional on Sunday for two hours and 23 minutes, cutting things off abruptly when lightning was spotted in the area after the top of the second inning.
As dozens of grounds-crew workers squeegeed the field to try to make it playable, Avent lobbied hard with NCAA representatives to get the restart time for the game pushed back. He angrily gestured toward different parts of the outfield, where giant puddles covered most of the warning track.
The game started back up at 4 p.m., and Florida didn’t wait long to pounce on its opportunity to make a return trip to the College World Series with N.C. State ace Carlos Rodon off the mound, his start cut short by the rain.
The teams traded shots back and forth in a 10-inning thriller that ended when sophomore right-hander Keenan Kish struck out Wolfpack shortstop Chris Diaz to cap a 9-8 win.
Diaz vehemently protested the call on the outside strike as Florida rushed the field and dog-piled on Kish on the third base side. After calming Diaz down, Avent got an unexpected surprise when Florida catcher Mike Zunino came up to him and bear-hugged him.
“He said ‘coach, that’s the best game we’ve played in all year,’” Avent said. “He said ‘your team is so tough, best game we’ve played in all year.”
Florida has made things look easy so far in postseason play, cruising through the NCAA Tournament with a 5-0 record while outscoring opponents 41-14. But Saturday’s win was anything but a walk in the park.
N.C. State came from behind to tie the game three times before the Gators finally plated two runs in the 10th and held the Wolfpack to one in the bottom half.
“What a gutsy performance today,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “We had all the momentum and they pulled it back.”
In the end, Florida just had too much in the tank. With plenty of run support, the Gators’ bullpen finally closed it off with its sixth reliever of the afternoon and what N.C. State catcher Danny Canela described as “pitching for days.”
Florida players celebrated on the field with friends and families for about 25 minutes before finally jubilantly making their way over to a post-game press conference where they beamed as they reflected on their accomplishments.
“It’s hard to get to Omaha, No. 1,” O’Sullivan said. “But to add it that you’re supposed to get there, and there’s so many things that’s gonna happen in this game that can keep you from getting to your ultimate destination – it has not been an easy road.”
In many ways, the path to Omaha has been similar to the one the Gators blazed a year ago. After cruising to a relatively easy win in the Game 1 of the Super Regional, Florida found itself up against an opponent that wouldn’t back down in Game 2.
Only, this time, the Gators came out on top.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more battle-hardened team in the country, and it’s one of the reasons Florida finds itself a handful of wins away from its first national title for the third straight season.
“I think that just goes to show how good Sully has done recruiting players not only with talent, but guys that really know how to grind and guys that are real competitive,” said senior Preston Tucker, who hit his school record 11th NCAA Tournament home run in the win.
The end is in sight for a team many pegged as the favorite to win it all.
For some, it’ll mean the end of a career. The seniors don’t want it to end too soon, especially after the way they’ve overcome hurdle after hurdle on this four-year journey, capped by Sunday’s tough test at the hands of N.C. State.
“If I could pick a game to go out with here at home, that’s the one,” Tucker said.
As the clouds broke up and shined down at the end of Florida’s thrilling victory, the light at the end of the tunnel became clearly visible for this group of Gators.
Weather a few more storms, and they’ll be on top of the college baseball world.