The day is June 2, 2019.
It’s just before 5.30pm in Lubbock, Texas, on a warm, cloudy evening. The wind that has been blowing for the last few hours is starting to subside. Two years after winning the College World Series, the Florida Gators were eliminated from the NCAA Regional Tournament.
The 2019 season started with high expectations. Almost every season in Florida has it, especially under coach Kevin O’Sullivan. Gators were ranked Nr. 4 by Baseball America before the season started. The memories of the 2017 title race remained fresh in everyone’s minds.
However, the team was alarmingly young, with real freshmen accounting for more than a third of the list.
“We thought we could have some learning curves with how young we could be, and because we played so many freshmen, but we still thought it would be a pretty good year,” said Jacob Young, a 2019 freshman.
The season started well enough. The team won a series against Miami and defeated the then No. 6 Florida State with a jaw drop 20-run performance. When the schedule shifted to conference play, the Gators had a record of 14-5.
Florida then dropped five of the first six SEC games – a splash of cold water that drove some speed. The ship stood from there, but the Gators would still end the season with a record of 13-17 in the conference. It was the team’s first losing record in the SEC since 2013 and the worst conference mark under O’Sullivan.
Still, not everything was lost in the wardrobe. The Gators gained confidence after entering the SEC tournament at the end of a season over Missouri, according to Kirby McMullen, who now plays third base for Florida.
A 10th loss against Texas A&M in the opening round of the SEC tournament led the Gators to the fateful regional competition in Lubbock. The third ranked team in the bracket with four troops, Florida, dropped its opening contest to the second seeded Dallas Baptist University Patriots, Florida, beating the Army to stay alive and force a rematch against the DBU.
The elimination game against the Patriots started well, but became a nightmare at the top of the fourth round. The Gators took the field defensively with a 2-0 lead, but came back to dugout nine races later, now behind with seven. Florida did not go down without a fight, bringing in six more races and moving a track runner to third base at the bottom of the ninth for Young.
Young grounded out. After four straight trips to Omaha, the Gators had their first departure from the Regionals since 2014.
“We knew we had our chance at the Regionals,” said Young, “we played some good teams, we had a good chance, but we felt we came a little short.”
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While Young said freshmen were gutted for players who would never see the college field again, seniors and draft prospects who would take their talents elsewhere, the focus shifted to the younger end of the roster immediately.
“We had our year to learn and gain experience, and we were ready to attack next year and make up for some of the mistakes,” Young said.
To say that the 2020 squad only redeemed itself would be a monumental understatement.
It was clear that something else was up in the air around O’Sullivan’s squad. The talent and work ethic were there, but there was something else as well. The whole program shared a chip on the shoulder, a desire to make sure that what happened the year before was never repeated.
“All sophomores should be very ready,” Young said. “We were all very prepared and wanted to show everyone that we are no joke.”
The team came out of the gates blazing and won the first 16 matches included and fei over da-Nei. 1 Miami. It reached pole position on Baseball America’s ranking February 24th and so not only ready to erase the mistakes in the post season 2019, but also to provide extra space in the trophy.
Then the rest of the world intervened. The day before the Gators were scheduled to take over Georgia to open conference games, The NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Collegiate sports everywhere stops.
The redemption Florida wanted had to be put on hold. This time, forces beyond their control risked both a chance of justification and the bonds that were forged along the way.
“Many of us were upset about the friendships that might have been cut off with children being drafted and signed,” McMullen said. “Obviously a lot of it happened.”
Gator’s loss from the top-ranked team was actually quite small this offseason. Star pitchers Tommy Mace and Jack Leftwich were not selected in one abbreviated MLB draft and chose to return to Gainesville for a new race. Longtime pin Austin Langworthy did not return, but a claimed recruiting class and transfer arm Franco Aleman added his names to the talent pool on a list that somehow got even deeper.
As the new season approaches, it looks like the Gators will finally have an unobstructed path to redemption. The NCAA has already hosted several championships and appears to have a plan to host athletic competitions. The team now has a chance to prove that a 16-1 start a year ago was no battle.
“Since we did not do that last year, that motivation crept into the fall,” Young said.
The opportunity ahead of this Florida team is not lost on those in the locker room, especially those who were there on the cloudy June day in Lubbock.
Contact Ryan Haley at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @ryan_dhaley
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