Before the season, Matt den Dekker did not discuss personal accomplishments.

He ignored talking about his speed and penchant for the long ball. Instead, the senior talked about leaving UF atop the Southeastern Conference.

Den Dekker and the rest of the Gators (38-12, 20-7 SEC) will have their chance tonight at 7 when No. 4 Florida travels to No. 6 South Carolina (42-11, 20-7 SEC) for the first game in what has become the de facto conference regular-season championship series.

“It would mean everything for our careers, and we haven’t gotten it done,” den Dekker said of finishing in first place. “We set out at the beginning of the year with some of our team goals, and up first was to win an SEC Championship.”

But even without personal expectations, den Dekker has been UF’s offensive leader. The senior paces the team with a .365 average and 20 stolen bases. He is also second with 11 home runs, including three long balls in the last five games.

His production at the plate is much improved from last year, when his batting average was about 70 points lower and he hit just five homers. Den Dekker said those struggles coincided with MLB Draft expectations.

“I’m a little more relaxed this year,” he said. “Last year I was pressing a little bit, I guess trying to do too much, trying to make some things happen. But I’ve learned a lot in the last couple years and I’m glad I came back.”

College baseball players are not eligible for the draft until their junior years. Players can also turn pro instead of going to college, but den Dekker went undrafted out of Fort Lauderdale Westminster High so last season was the first time he received serious looks from MLB teams.

“Any guy that gets draft eligible has it in the back of their mind that they got to produce,” den Dekker said. “It’s a lesson I learned and hopefully other guys can learn the lesson, too.”

Junior Josh Adams is going through similar struggles this year. After batting .336 his first two seasons, he is hitting just .221 this year.

The second baseman’s slugging percentage has also dropped from .514 to .381 and his place in the Gators lineup has fallen from second to ninth.

Adams’ problems continued last weekend against Georiga, when he went just 1 for 9. But even through the struggles, Adams can look behind him in the outfield to see an example of how to bounce back.

After trying to force production last season, den Dekker has calmed down, not worrying about how scouts will see him. And the results have been impressive, leading coach Kevin O’Sullivan to argue den Dekker is the nation’s premier center fielder.

 “We really appreciate everything he brings to the table,” O’Sullivan said. “He means an awful lot to us both on and off the field. We’re probably going to unfairly compare future center fielders to Matt.”

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