Heller was born to be a Gator

The decision for Michael Heller was pretty straight forward. Baseball powerhouses from all over the country recruited him, but there was only one school he ever planned to attend.

“Both of my parents went to Florida and my brother goes there now,” said Heller, the 6-2, 180-pound Sarasota Cardinal Mooney athlete. “I grew up a big Gator fan, too, so that played a part in my decision. It looks like a fun place to play. I love Coach Sully. I get along with him really well.”

The road to his commitment was rather short. Like many of the top prospects in the nation, Heller played in the 2008 National Showcase in Minnesota. Among the head coaches in attendance was Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, known to be one of the hardest working recruiters in all of college baseball.

The showcase gave Heller a chance to show his stuff to everyone in attendance. He was already on O’Sullivan’s radar, since Heller made an unofficial visit to Gainesville in the fall of 2007 when the Gator football team took on the Tennessee Volunteers. The showcase was where he proved himself as a top-rated prospect. He currently ranks as the No. 9 player in Florida.

Heller stepped onto the mound and hit between 91-94 miles per hour with his fastball. The slider and changeup were both thrown effectively, with the straight changeup at 75 mph, drawing rave reviews from all of those in attendance.

Then Heller stepped off the mound, put on a helmet and stepped into the batter’s box. There he showed off a swing that has drawn praise, some even calling Heller one of the top two-way players in the country.

Heller committed to O’Sullivan shortly after the showcase in Minnesota. Once he gets to Gainesville, it doesn’t matter to Heller whether he plays middle infield (second base or shortstop) or pitches. All he asks for is a chance to help the Gators.

“Coach Sully is hoping I’ll be able to do a little of both pitching and playing middle infield,” Heller said. “I’m just going up there with an open mind and doing whatever I can to help the team. I honestly love doing both. I know that doing both isn’t realistic, so whichever one takes me the furthest is what I would prefer to do.”

Heller’s relationship with the Florida head coach played a large role in his decision. In O’Sullivan’s 11 years of coaching at the college level, he has coached a total of 33 pitchers who have been drafted or signed professionally. He has also served as the pitching coach for three first-round picks, nine top-five round picks and 17 top-10 round picks.

O’Sullivan’s track record is an obvious positive for recruits looking at Florida. The reason for Heller’s commitment was his relationship with O’Sullivan off the field.

“He’s a younger guy who is really outgoing and down the earth,” Heller said. “He’s easy to talk to and to get along with. He seems like a guy who would be fun to play for. At the same time, he works hard and pushes you to get better.”

Two weeks ago, Heller took a visit to Gainesville. The trip gave him a chance to watch the baseball team go through one of its fall practices as well as watch the Gator football team play Louisiana State.

“The visit was a lot of fun,” Heller said. “I got to watch the team practice Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. I hung out with some of the players, too. It was a good experience and got me real excited to get there next year. The football game was only the second one I’ve attended and they’ve both been on visits as a recruit.”

But Heller isn’t the only big-time recruit committed to play for the Gators. Over the summer, he spent a week in Los Angeles participating in the Aflac All-American Game. Besides Heller, the Gators were also represented by Austin Maddox (Jacksonville/Eagle’s View Academy), LeVon Washington (Gainesville/Buchholz) and Michael Zunino (Cape Coral/Mariner).

“Zunino and I have played together since we were 13 so I’m real close to him,” Heller said. “Levon, Austin and I have been going to the same showcases and camps together so we’ve all developed a friendship. I definitely think we have the best class for 2009. We’re just excited about the future of Gator baseball.”

Now Heller’s focus is solely on helping Cardinal Mooney experience a successful season. During his junior season, he had a .505 batting average, five home runs and 32 runs batted in. On the mound, he had a 3.02 earned-run average in 37 innings. His focus is on improving those numbers to help his team win a state championship.

“This year I’m looking to play shortstop and close some games out for us,” Heller said. “When we get a little deeper into the season then I may start some games on the mound.”

The question surrounding many top-rated recruits is their likelihood of actually attending college. Growing up a Gator fan makes it even more enticing for Heller to attend college, but it will ultimately depend on where he is drafted.

“It would take a lot (to sign professionally),” Heller said. “There’s no set numbers, but it would take a really good amount to keep me from college because I really want to be a Gator. I’m most likely going to Florida.”