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Friday, December 03, 2021

Three Gators return for one last season in Gainesville

Kirby McMullen, Nick Blasucci and Trey Van Der Weide return to the Gators for their extra year of eligibility granted due to COVID-19

Three players will return to Gainesville for a brand new season in a brand new stadium, each with their own reasoning.
Three players will return to Gainesville for a brand new season in a brand new stadium, each with their own reasoning.

The Gators baseball team expected to head into another day of practice on the morning of March 12, 2020. 

Florida expected a charter bus filled with Georgia Bulldogs to pull up next to the Alfred A. McKethan Stadium. It expected to kick off the final SEC Opening Weekend  McKethan Stadium would ever host the next day. 

Instead, that morning marked the unassuming end of the 2020 season. 

The team was first told that its series against Georgia was canceled. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey then announced that all events from March 12-30 were canceled. 

By March 17, the rest was canceled.

The short-lived season meant many things for the Gators. It robbed Florida of a chance at redemption for the 2019 season. It made the final game played at McKethan Stadium a loss to Florida State. It left many questions about what would happen to the players in their final year of eligibility. 

Outfielder Austin Langworthy, third baseman Kirby McMullen, infielder Nick Blasucci and pitcher Trey Van Der Weide were halfway through their final year allotted in the orange and blue. 

Langworthy was the only one of the four who left. He went unselected in the 2020 MLB Draft, which was shortened to just five rounds due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He then signed a deal with the Detroit Tigers during the summer and officially ended his time as a Gator. 

On March 30 the NCAA Division I Council extended eligibility for all spring sports athletes. With the safety net of a promised extra year, the rest had a choice to make: move on from college baseball for good or return for another season. 

The other three will return to Gainesville for a brand new season in a brand new stadium, each with their own reasoning. 

Kirby’s mind raced when he learned he could have another year. After hearing the news, he called the team’s academic adviser to see how he could continue his education. Once that was settled, he was ready to hit the field. 

His return wasn’t just for the chance to win another National Championship, however. An extra year also meant another chance to take the field with his younger brother, Hunter, who began his career at Florida in 2018. 

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Since that first season, the brothers haven’t had much of a chance to play together. Hunter appeared in three games in 2019 before suffering a right shoulder injury that kept him sidelined for the rest of the season. The 2020 season didn’t look much brighter with Hunter redshirted.

With Kirby in town for an extra year, the boys will get one last chance to play together as Gators. It’s a dream they’ve shared longer than Kirby can remember. It’s not just the boys’ dream, though, but also that of their mother, who has always been their biggest fan. 

The Ocala native has been following Gator baseball his entire life. Getting the chance to play with his brother in front of his devoted mother is one of the biggest blessings the extra year has given him, he said.   

“My mom comes to all the games and is going to be the biggest supporter of Hunter and I whether we’re on the field or not,” Kirby said. “I know she’s gonna be even more excited to see Hunter on the mound and now me playing as well behind him.”

Kirby’s decision to return was encouraged by the disappointing loss in the regional playoff in 2019 and the loss to Florida State in what would become the final game of the 2020 season.

Losing to the Seminoles on your home turf is a cut that always runs deep. But last season’s finale — the final game played at McKethan Stadium— is a scar that hasn’t healed.

It’s why Kirby needed to return for another chance to end his career on a high note. 

“It would have really sucked to go out on a note like that,” Kirby said. 

Blasucci didn’t initially plan to return for the 2021 season. He wanted to sign a free-agent deal and leave his college career in the past — until he felt pain in his right shoulder a few months after the 2020 season ended.

In mid-July, Blasucci underwent surgery on his right shoulder, his third in his young career. The second caused him to miss the entire 2018 season, making him a redshirt senior at the end of last season. 

The shoulder injury caused Blasucci to take a step back and weigh his options. In the end, he chose to forgo his original plan to sign a professional deal and return  for a final year of college baseball.

“With all this COVID going on and minor league teams being removed from their organizations, they’re probably not going to take a chance on a kid that just had shoulder surgery,” Blasucci said.

Blasucci returns with three goals for the season: to stay healthy, win a National Championship and learn as much as he can from his teammates. 

Van Der Weide’s decision also wasn’t automatic. When the announcement of the extra year was made, he was still uncertain about the status of his ulnar nerve injury. There also wasn’t a decision regarding if roster numbers would be expanded to accommodate incoming freshmen.

“I thought that it wouldn’t be fair for me to try and play and be hurt and take the spot away from an incoming freshman,” Van Der Weide said. 

Van Der Weide had surgery on his ulnar nerve in March 2016. After spending his first three years of eligibility at the University of South Carolina Upstate, Van Der Weide transferred to Florida as a graduate student in 2019, ready to play his first season as a Gator in 2020. 

Born and raised in Longwood, Florida, he was excited to play for his childhood team. But there were problems from the get-go. Early into the 2020 season, Van Der Weide felt his prior injury flare-up. 

The left-handed pitcher underwent another surgery to clean up scar tissue in late February following the Gators’ weekend series against Miami. Once the Gators began SEC play, he would return to the mound halfway through the season. 

But he never had a chance to come back healthy. He confronted the circumstances and tried to stay positive. 

“The break from baseball helped with my injury,” Van Der Weide said. “I didn’t miss a full season while everyone was playing, and it kept me on track.”

With a fresh arm and another season, Van Der Weide decided to come back and finally fulfill his childhood dream of throwing off the mound as a Gator. Even if he had any remaining doubts, his family swayed his opinion toward another year in Gainesville. 

“My whole family is Gators fans, and now my nephews can look at photos and know that their uncle played for the University of Florida,” Van Der Weide said. “It makes my family so happy.”

The three athletes’ return, combined with that of pitchers Jack Leftwich and Tommy Mace, both of whom were expected to be gone in the 2020 MLB Draft if the draft hadn’t been shortened, brings an almost identical 2020 roster into the 2021 season. 

On top of that, the Gators are the unanimous preseason No. 1-ranked team. After the missed opportunity to avenge the 2019  ending, Florida will dive headfirst into this season, hoping to carry the 2020 16-1 start into the new year. 

For Kirby, Blasucci and Van Der Weide, the 2021 season was never in their plans, but now they have one last shot to cap off their college careers with a possible trip to Omaha and another championship. 

Contact Sara Kate Dyson at skatedyson@alligator.org or follow her on Twitter at @sarakatedyson

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