Unfinished Business

At the end of a 47-17 season—which included a Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and a trip to the College World Series despite a roster overloaded with freshmen—Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan sat on the dais in Rosenblatt Stadium’s Hall of Fame room and declared, “We obviously need to get better.”

It was a cruel bottom line for such a brilliant year, but there was no denying it. For all they accomplished in 2010, the Gators’ lasting memory of the season would be the hollow feeling of playing two flat, uninspiring games in Omaha and getting ousted by arch-rival Florida State.

“It was awesome winning the SEC, but losing the last two in Omaha, in front of that big crowd—especially against our rivals—kind of put a sour taste in everyone’s mouth,” recalled two-way standout Brian Johnson, one of five Gators who earned freshman All-America honors last year. “I remember not even taking a week off and talking to Coach O’Sullivan saying, ‘I’m ready to get back into it right now.’ I don’t think anybody was ready to stop playing.”

That lingering sensation that business was left unfinished, and the subsequent hunger to get back on the field and start working toward redemption, was nothing new for second baseman Josh Adams. As a freshman on O’Sullivan’s first Florida team in 2008, Adams was there when the Gators’ season ended against those same hated Seminoles in the Tallahassee Regional. He remembers the devastating, season-ending loss to Southern Mississippi in the 2009 Gainesville Super Regional, when the Golden Eagles rallied from behind with three runs in the bottom of the eighth to stun the heavily favored Gators. And of course, he vividly recalls losing to Florida State last June for the fourth time and final time that season, as Florida became the first team eliminated from the CWS.

“Every year we go a little bit further and a little bit further,” Adams said, “so every year we have a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths at the end of the year, but that definitely gives us a little bit to look forward to the next season—work on the things we didn’t get done the season before. It kind of fuels us a little bit.”

Adams, now a senior clubhouse leader, is convinced each disappointment has only made the Gators stronger, and O’Sullivan agrees.

“I think that’s the one element that coaches cannot help their players with, and that’s experience—there’s really no substitute for that,” the fourth-year head coach said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll experience the same type of success this year or have more success, but it certainly should help.”

And each year, through the remarkable recruiting efforts of O’Sullivan and assistants Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel, the Gators have become better equipped to accomplish those things they didn’t get done the season before. UF’s 2009 recruiting class was historically strong, producing five stars already (Johnson, righty Hudson Randall, slugger Austin Maddox, shortstop Nolan Fontana and catcher Mike Zunino), not to mention other key contributors like lefty Steven “Paco” Rodriguez.

This fall, Florida once again struck gold, adding unsigned first-round pick Karsten Whitson, fellow heralded righthander Keenan Kish and talented lefty Daniel Gibson. The Gators already had the nation’s most balanced, most talented and deepest roster returning, but somehow they managed to get even stronger with the addition of a third straight recruiting class that ranked among the nation’s top six.

It should be no surprise, then, that Florida enters 2011 ranked No. 1 in Baseball America’s preseason Top 25 for the first time ever. After going from a regional in 2008 to a super regional in 2009 to the College World Series in 2010, the next step is for Florida to take home its first national championship.

Not that the Gators speak in those kinds of grand terms.

“We recognize we have a good team, and we recognize the expectations this year will be a little different than last year,” O’Sullivan said. “It is what it is. The fact of the matter is we have got to play well and we have got to work hard. There is example after example in any sport where oftentimes the No. 1 ranked team doesn’t end up being No. 1. We do have a good team, we have the pieces to compete for a national championship, but that doesn’t mean we will win it. We won’t approach it any different—we’ll do everything in our power to guard against that. Keeping them grounded is the biggest thing.”

Fortunately, one of Florida’s myriad virtues is equanimity.

“We don’t really see it as a big deal for us,” Adams said of the lofty expectations. “We always keep level heads here.”

Johnson—who has a reputation as the clubhouse goofball and relishes keeping teammates on their toes—raves about the team’s cohesiveness on and off the field. Players support each other, even while competing with each other.

“The thing on this team is everybody’s good, so there’s competition right behind you,” said Johnson, a lefthander in the weekend rotation and a slugging first baseman. “If you slack, they’re going to catch you. You’re done throwing your bullpen, you think you threw a great one, but you look and you’re just amazed—that freshman, junior, senior pitcher, everyone’s throwing great. It’s a good feeling that if you have an off day, you can give the ball to one of your teammates and they’re going to back you up.”

It’s a good feeling for O’Sullivan, too.

“We’ve got some depth at the starting end of things,” he said. “I think the thing that separates this staff is we have five power lefties that, at this level, are very difficult to have on one staff. You get two or three of those guys on a college staff, you’ve got to feel really good about things. But to have Alex Panteliodis, Brian Johnson, Paco Rodriguez and Nick Maronde, then to add Gibson—that gives you a lot in the starting end but also in the ‘pen, to really place a matchup in the seventh, eighth, ninth. We don’t have to lean on our starters to go seven, eight innings every time out. It’s nice to have guys who can go that deep, but it’s also nice to have a deep ‘pen so you don’t have to ride them so hard, especially early in the year.”

After all, the Gators will need their pitching in top form in June, for their next showdown against that all-too-familiar foe: unfinished business.