It certainly wasn’t supposed to end the way it did.
Not after starting the season ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Not after returning to Omaha for a third consecutive season, unfazed by the hoopla and craze which surrounds the eight teams lucky enough to make college baseball’s most sacred pilgrimage.
But in June of 2012, again, there the Gators were. A team stacked to the brim, possessors of arguably the nation’s most enviable collection of talent, and on their way home without anything to show for their season.
Just two short weeks earlier, varying members of the game’s highest consortium ran their money-stained fingers up and down the Florida roster all the way from Secaucus, N.J.
As the draft wore on, one by one, Florida’s best juniors were immediately pulled into an ultimatum handed down yearly by Major League Baseball — take our money now, or pay for it next year when we lowball you.
So away they went, one by one, making perhaps the same decision anyone in their shoes would have — Zunino, Randall, Maddox, Fontana, Johnson and Rodriguez — gone with barely even a wave goodbye. Trading study hall and the unmistakable ping of aluminum for big league checks and grueling trips aboard cramped charter buses.
With a recruiting class ranked as the best in the country, the sting of the departures temporarily appeared a little easier to bear. However, the same force which had descended upon the Gators’ roster had also made its way onto Florida’s list of high school commitments.
And again, the Gators found themselves waving goodbye — saying sayonara to the bulk of players which had propelled them to that number one slot. The only difference was they were saying goodbye without having really said hello.
“To put things in perspective, we’ve lost 28 players the last two years; two years, we’ve lost 11 recruits and 17 players off of our team to professional baseball,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said..
The Gators’ three-year run from 2010-2012 offered up the most delightful stretch in Florida baseball history, but UF’s failure to capture the big one has been haunting. While few around the program would be willing to admit, the overriding feeling certainly appears to be the Gators are again at the bottom of the mountain with a long way to climb.
As O’Sullivan admitted this past week, having the powerful talent which the Gators fielded in the previous few years is a rarity in college baseball. Windows of opportunity stay open for only so long.
However, the prevailing mood around the Florida program appears to be upbeat. With a new season on the horizon, this current batch of Gators seem eager to prove naysayers wrong. Florida knows they don’t have the same power bats dotting the lineup as they did in years past.
With Thursday’s news of pitcher Karsten Whitson missing the 2013 season, it’s apparent the Gators won’t be showcasing the same talent on the mound either.
Here’s a secret though … the Gators don’t care.
For Florida, what is past is prologue.
Despite whatever losses the No. 13/17 Gators have accrued, they will cross onto the freshly chalked fields on Friday at 7 o’clock p.m. ready to again go after what they could not get last year, and the year before, and the year before.
While the Duke Blue Devils immediately stand in the way this weekend, a preposterously tough SEC slate awaits Florida once the non-conference games are done for. The Southeastern Conference currently features seven teams other than Florida in the nation’s top-25.
Florida will have to earn its way back to Omaha, but it can indeed be done. And if they are lucky enough to make it back to Nebraska for a fourth consecutive time, the Gators also believe they can win it.
It just may not be how they would have done it in years past.
“When you dissect our team and what its strengths are, we can run — we’re athletic and we’re going to do that,” O’Sullivan said.
“The teams that win in Omaha every year, it’s not about home runs or that type of thing. I’m very proud of who we have right now and what we’ve been able to do and I think this team has got a chance to be very successful — it’s just going to be in a different way.”
It’s hard to discern when coaches and players are simply offering lip service, or if they truly believe what they preach.
From the sound of it however, it’s going to take more than a few personnel losses to stultify this Florida team.