With workers busy applying fresh coats of orange and blue paint around McKethan Stadium, players from the Florida baseball team set out to practice on Thursday afternoon in preparation for the season opener against USF on Feb. 18.
“They’re so oblivious to everything, I don’t even know if they know people are painting stuff,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “I think they’re awfully excited, we’re within almost a week.
“I think everybody throughout the whole country is excited. It’s a long time between your last game of the year until your first game. The thing we’ve been preaching to them is that once the season starts, it will fly by, so enjoy it and work hard.
“It’s a long process, a long season, but I know we’re anxious. I’m anxious. Once you get within that seven-day period, you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The Gators are the nation’s top-ranked team and are looking to improve on last season’s appearance in the College World Series by returning to Omaha, Neb.
“I think going to Omaha was a great experience, obviously we can draw from that experience and get back there again,” O’Sullivan said. “If we do, hopefully we can play a little bit better. It all starts on the mound.”
O’Sullivan serves as the team pitching coach and is regarded as one of the best recruiters in college baseball. His efforts to bolster the Florida pitching staff paid off when the Gators had the nation’s highest-rated signing class enroll at UF in the fall.
O’Sullivan has many areas he could consider to be the strongest assets to his team.
“Probably pitching and defense,” O’Sullivan said. “I feel really good about our pitching depth, I feel really good about our defense, especially up the middle. And experience — winning the SEC last year was a big deal to the players, it was a big deal to the coaches and it was a big deal to our program.”
Florida won the Southeastern Conference championship in 2010 with a program-best 22-8 record after winning nine of the 10 conference series for an overall 47-17 record.
UF players have observed that O’Sullivan appears to be more relaxed during spring practices.
In the offseason, O’Sullivan and his wife saw the birth of their first child.
“It’s a great change in my life, I’m awfully excited about it, but I don’t know if that has anything with me calming down,” O’Sullivan said. “I still want to win like I did last year just as bad.”
However, the coach says the team he assembled has more heavily influenced his demeanor.
“It more has to do with the fact that we have an older club, we’ve got some experience, we have a lot of guys back,” O’Sullivan said. “They know what we expect on a day-to-day routine.”
The Gator lineup returns starts in sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana, senior second baseman Josh Adams, sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, sophomore third/first baseman Austin Maddox, junior right fielder/first baseman Preston Tucker, junior left fielder Tyler Thompson, sophomore pitcher/first baseman Brian Johnson and all three weekend starting pitchers.
“We’ll use as many guys as we need to win a series or win a ballgame,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll play matchups, we’ve got a lot of depth, a lot of flexibility and a lot of guys that have worked hard. They deserve an opportunity to see what they can do.”
Thompson could share time in left field with junior Daniel Pigott, while junior Ben McMahan will see time at designated hitter and first base. Sophomore Kamm Washington and senior Bryson Smith will share time in center field early in the season.
“To speculate on who’s playing left or center, or who’s playing first or what our weekend rotation is, there are so many questions that need to be answered that I won’t be able to give concrete answers until we’ve playing 15 or 20 games,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll change the lineup up a bunch.”
Johnson, junior Alex Panteliodis and sophomore Hudson Randall comprised the weekend rotation for most of 2010 and should start the 2011 campaign in the same fashion, but the UF pitching staff gives O’Sullivan a wealth of options to choose from as the season progresses.
“The weekend rotation at the beginning of the year is never the same at the end,” O’Sullivan said. “Last year, the year before, it always works out that way. We’re going to play a lot of guys in the first 15-20 games before we start SEC play and we’ll let the players figure it out.”
Junior Tommy Toledo, sophomore Michael Heller and freshman Karsten Whitson will compete for time in the weekend rotation.
Whitson was selected with the seventh pick in the first round of the 2010 MLB Draft, but elected to enroll at UF instead of signing with the San Diego Padres.
“We’re going to set our rotation for the first four games, and then we’ll set a rotation for the following week,” O’Sullivan said. “There’s going to be a lot of thought put into how we can put ourselves into position to have our best chance to win every game, our best opportunity for people to be successful, whether home games or away games. We’ll play the first two or three weeks, see where we’re at, and set our rotation from that point on.”