OMAHA, Neb. — It took a while for the players to filter off of the field Friday night. Every time they turned their head there was another friend with red eyes welling fighting back tears.
Florida’s Athletic Director Scoot Stricklin was there in the tunnel to greet each player, shaking their hands and offering a private word or two as they walked off the field for the last time in 2018.
The locker room was heavy with a disappointment and hurt that weighed on you physically. The only sounds were sniffles and hushed “thank you” and “I love you,” remarks between teammates.
Jonathan India’s baseball career is just beginning but the junior who was picked 5th overall by the Cincinnati Reds in the MLB Draft spent a few minutes signing baseballs for young fans that crowded the tunnel looking for a glimpse and dreaming of being in his shoes. When he got to the clubhouse he leaned against a back wall, hands on his knees, unable to wrap his mind around the fact that his career at Florida was over. He stayed hunched over until Austin Langworthy walked over to give him a hug.
Jackson Kowar never imagined he’d be here. Then Clemson parted ways with longtime head coach — and mentor to Kevin O’Sullivan — Jack Leggett.
“In high school I was dead set on going to Clemson,” Kowar said Friday night. “I was a Clemson fan my whole life and then my whole world got turned upside down and I had no idea where I was gonna go.”
Friday night he couldn’t imagine being anywhere else than in that room with a group of guys he considers family.
“I couldn’t have been more blessed to come to Florida. Especially with the group of guys that I came in with in my class. We accomplished a ton here,” he said. “It’s been a lot more than all the baseball stuff that you guys see. It’s the best group of guys I could have asked to be around. I just feel really blessed.”
That was the resounding message after Florida’s 5-2 loss to Arkansas. The numbers on the field are astounding. The junior class went 153-56 in three seasons. JJ Schwarz spent four years in Gainesville and started more games than any other player in school history. His record is 205-74, with every season ending in Omaha.
The 2017 team won the final game of the college baseball season for the first time in school history but, to a man, every player spoke of the relationships they forged as what sticks out.
Nick Horvath had a unique path to Florida. He wasn’t recruited out of high school, where he was teammates with JJ Schwarz. Horvath went to Santa Fe College for one season before he got a call from Kevin O’Sullivan after his freshman season.
“When Sully called it wasn’t a ‘yes or no’ it was just ‘I’m coming,’” Horvath said.
He spent the next three years pitching and playing outfield. Horvath turned himself into one of the best defensive center fielders in the SEC in 2018. Friday night he answered questions gracefully, while still trying to come to terms with a new reality.
“Just being able to come here meant the world to me. I’m just glad that I met all these guys,” he said. “Coming to Florida was the best decision of my life. Being here for three years I’m at a loss for words. I just can’t believe it’s over.”
Back in the locker room Schwarz and Brady Singer rejoined the group after speaking to media at the podium. They were embraced by their team before, for the last time as a group they all walked out of a baseball stadium together. Waiting for them outside were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters girlfriends and fans. The people in the stands and behind the scenes that have done so much for the guys in the dugout offered condolences and congratulations that the players may not have been able to digest in the moment but will remember for the rest of their lives.
Florida’s season was spent at or near the top from the first poll to the last. As a group they have accomplished more than any other group in Florida baseball history.
Being in the locker room Friday night, feeling the hurt and watching teammates pick each other up you could tell why. It was more than a game and it was more than just baseball to this team.
“The relationships are what this team was built on,” Schwarz said. “From day one we stressed that in the clubhouse. These are the guys that are going to go to your wedding and stuff like that. It’s so much deeper than baseball and this team had a good grasp on that.”