Every season there’s a dog pile in Omaha, Nebraska. Tears stream, Gatorade flies, cleats are upended over heads as players celebrate being the last team standing.
In 2017 that was the Florida Gators. After 10 trips to Omaha that ended short, the Gators finally felt what it’s like to win the last game of the season. That creates a new challenge for the team. Florida was unanimously selected the No. 1 team in the country by every major poll. Sure, every year in Gainesville starts with the same goal but a season has never started as the defending National Champions.
“I think the biggest thing for us is to be able to turn the page,” head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
That wasn’t always easy when the team first got together in the fall. The past two years the team returned with a bitter taste of Omaha failure lingering. This season they returned as champions. They were given rings and praise and made a trip to the White House to be honored. They were the talk of the town and of the college baseball universe.
Their coach wanted to celebrate it, take it all in, but he also wanted the team to get over itself. This team, in his mind, isn’t defending anything. They haven’t even won a game yet.
“Sometimes in the fall, it wasn’t easy to be quite honest,” said O’Sullivan. “We talked extensively about it. We’re not defending a national championship. We’ve got a different players, it’s a different team. So I want this team to write their own chapter, their own book.”
The first chapter started on Friday when the Gators got together for their first practice of 2018. They’ll kick off the 2018 season in less than three weeks when Brady Singer takes the mound and pumps a 95-plus mile per hour fastball over the plate. Singer replaces Alex Faedo on Friday nights after Faedo was selected 18th in the MLB Draft last year.
Make no mistake about it. This Florida team has a lot of talent, including Singer who some believe could be picked in the top five of this year’s draft. Nobody around the country will feel bad for the Gators or O’Sullivan for losing players like Faedo, Mike Rivera, Dalton Guthrie or Mark Kolozsvary.
The Gators got back JJ Schwarz. Schwarz almost never made it to Gainesville (he was projected as a potential first rounder out of high school) and certainly wasn’t expected to be playing baseball in Gainesville this year. He’ll wear a captain’s patch on his jersey, the first player to ever have that distinction under Kevin O’Sullivan and he’s taking that honor seriously. He, along with Singer, Jackson Kowar, Jonathan India and Nelson Maldonado will lead 16 newcomers to the roster. That’s half the roster made up entirely of players that weren’t on the team last season.
It’s the reason that O’Sullivan and the older players are trying their best to mentally turn the page. They can’t hide from what they accomplished last season, National Champions plaques are littered around the stadium and on the outfield wall. They made it to the mountain top, but they don’t stand a chance of doing it again if they linger on the accomplishments of other people on a different team, even if those players and that team wore the same uniforms they will don this season.
“It’s a brand new team. We have so many freshmen that it almost feels like a different dynamic with this team. So I wouldn’t say anyone’s getting to high,” Kowar said Friday. “We all know that last year’s team was last year’s team, and we lost a lot of key guys. Alex was dynamite and Mike was such a leader and Dalton was at short, and when you saw those guys, it was kinda hard to get too high on yourself with all these new guys. So I think all of us are excited to just have a new identity with this team.”