Eleven months and nine days. That’s how long Florida’s baseball bats lay dormant.
“Some days it feels like a year and some days it feels like five years,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Wednesday.
Last year, O’Sullivan and his team won their first 16 games, ascended to the pole position of Baseball America’s rankings and seemed poised for a run at the program’s second national championship.
Then came March 12. As COVID-19 spread its fingers to the corners of the U.S., the SEC suspended all spring sports, including baseball. O’Sullivan called his team to Alfred A. McKethan Stadium for what became their final meeting of the 2020 season, forced to tell his roster that no one knew when they could play again.
For some players, the gut-punch hit deeper. The prospects expiring eligibility or a professional contract loomed over the team the way a storm cloud threatens to pour. Jack Leftwich and Tommy Mace, pitchers and draft hopefuls, thought the news unceremoniously ended their collegiate careers.
“We were sitting in McKethan in the dugout, and we were crying because we thought that was for sure the last time we were gonna play there,” Leftwich recalled.
What followed tested the Gator baseball program in ways it never experienced. Months without practice or games, social distancing and isolation, testing protocols and bubbles.
Even away from the diamond, classes moved online, which altered the lives of all college students. Student-athletes rely on a strict schedule to balance athletics with classwork.
Suddenly, that schedule was thrown into chaos, completely uncertain and at the mercy of experimentation. Even O’Sullivan felt the ripple effects as he learned how to adjust to a homeschool lifestyle with his own two children.
A year later, COVID-19 still lingers in day-to-day life. But there's a silver lining. Florida baseball is back — in a sleek, new stadium. Leftwich and Mace remain in Gainesville with almost everyone from the 2020 team.
“Knowing that we got to come back with our brothers and play was a great feeling,” third-year left fielder Jacob Young said.
“Knowing that last year our season was cut short, it means a lot being on the field right now,” fifth-year infielder Kirby McMullen said.
But just because the Gators know how impactful the 2021 season is doesn’t mean they aren’t celebrating it.
“Practice, games, we’re a really close group. So when we get to play any type of baseball, we love it,” Young said. “So it’s a great feeling knowing that we’re back together.”
The team, just like the rest of the world, continues to hold its breath until it crosses the finish line. Fans must wear face coverings and follow attendance limitations in the new stadium. The team still operates under health and safety restrictions.
O’Sullivan called it all a work in progress for his team both mentally and physically. The athletes missed out on nearly a year of competitive baseball. To O’Sullivan, his players need more time to get back into the groove they left off last March.
“I think there’s a lot of things that still have to get worked through mentally to get to a point where we feel really good,” O’Sullivan said. “The world changed a year ago.”
The sports community did change, maybe permanently. The sports world may never return to its state before March 12, 2020.
But whatever reality the future holds, Florida baseball won’t lag.
Contact Ryan Haley at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ryan_dhaley
Contact Sara Kate Dyson at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @sarakatedyson
Ryan Haley, a UF journalism senior with a sports & media specialization from Jacksonville, Florida, is Summer 2022's Engagement Managing Editor. He grew up playing a bunch of different sports before settling on golf, following Rory McIlroy and all Philadelphia sports teams. He also loves all things fiction, reading, watching shows and movies and talking about whatever current story or character is in his head.