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Friday, April 19, 2024

The 2020-21 Florida Gators athletics season brought forward both good memories — like a national championship and walk-off victories — and ugly ones — like bitter rivalry losses and early postseason exits.

However, some Florida student-athletes stood out above the rest for their performances on the field, court or arena. The Alligator sports staff came together to bestow the honor of an Alligator Award on the Gators that truly stood head and shoulders above the rest in the previous year.

Male Athlete of the Year: Kyle Pitts 

By Michael Hull

Pitts Vandy
Kyle Pitts against Vanderbilt in November of 2019.

While other Florida athletes put up great seasons and were deserving of this award, no one had a 2020-2021 quite like Pitts, making him the clear choice for Male Athlete of the Year. 

Pitts dominated in every sense of the word in 2020 when he put together possibly the best tight end season in college football history. 

Despite a shortened, conference-only schedule and an injury that forced him out of four games, Pitts racked up 770 yards and 12 touchdowns in just eight games. The matchup nightmare casually shredded some of the SEC’s top defenses, including a 129-yard performance in the conference championship game against Alabama.

The Philadelphia native entered the COVID-19 stricken season with lofty expectations after grabbing 54 balls in 2019. Pitts shattered those expectations in the very first week of the 2020 season when he roasted the Ole Miss secondary for 170 yards and four touchdowns on eight catches. 

Pitts went on a tear and scored four more touchdowns over the next four weeks. After missing two weeks due to injury, the 6’6 junior came back with a vengeance against the Kentucky Wildcats and scored three touchdowns before he went for over 100 yards against Tennessee. Pitts became the third Gator tight end ever to have three 100-yard receiving games in a season.

He was injured a second time ahead of a senior night battle with LSU, and head coach Dan Mullen held the star tight end out of the eventual loss. Pitts went on to declare for the NFL Draft after the SEC Championship and did not compete in the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma.

Pitts capped off his historic season with a slew of national awards. He was unanimously voted the First-Team All-American—the eighth player in UF’s 109-year history to accomplish the feat and the first since Vernon Hargreaves III in 2015. He became the first tight end to finish top 10 in Heisman voting since Ken MacAfee from Notre Dame in 1977.

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No. 84 added some hardware to his mantle as well, winning the Mackey Award, given each year to the nation’s top tight end. He also became the first tight end nominated as a Biletnikoff Award finalist, which honors the nation’s top receiver.

Florida honored Pitts’ time in Gainesville with a brick outside The Swamp, the first one to be laid down since cornerback Hargreaves’ III in 2015. Every UF player named to an All-American team is honored with a brick.

Though his time at UF was done, Pitts shattered one final landmark. He became the highest drafted tight end in NFL history April 29, when the Atlanta Falcons selected him with the fourth overall pick.

Make no mistake about it: Florida fans may not see another season like Pitts’ for a long time. He led one of the most prolific offenses in recent history, making him the clear choice for Male Athlete of the Year.

Female Athlete of the Year: Trinity Thomas

By Zachary Huber

Trinity Thomas Mizzou

Trinity Thomas during a floor routine against Mizzou January 29, 2021. Thomas became the 12th gymnast in NCAA history to score a 10 on each event during her career, earning a perfect mark on the vault Sunday.

It was difficult to imagine junior Trinity Thomas topping her impressive sophomore season, but she did just that, despite spending the last quarter of Florida’s gymnastic season marred by an ankle injury. 

Thomas became the second Florida gymnast and the first since Alex McMurtry in 2018, to record two 10s in one meet versus Auburn on Feb. 26. She posted the highest all-around score (39.9) in Florida history and fifth-best in NCAA history against No. 2 LSU

Her talent and toughness made Thomas an easy choice for Female Athlete of the Year.

Thomas could’ve captured her first National Championship and the Gators’ fourth in program history if it wasn’t for the sprained ankle she suffered in warmups against Alabama

However, Thomas still shined with a bum ankle. She only competed in the uneven bars competition because of her injury at NCAA regionals, but she still secured a 10.

Florida managed to finish fourth in the NCAA Championships in Fort Worth, Texas, on April 17. The team was hindered in the first rotation by two falls on the balance beam by Thomas and sophomore Payton Richards. 

The York, Pennsylvania, native finished her junior season with an All-American nod in every possible category. Thomas collected first-team honors in every event except for beam. She also earned Gymnast of the Year. 

Thomas made the decision to retire from elite gymnastics because of her ankle injury and withdrew her name from the list of gymnasts who aspired to make the U.S. Olympic Team for the Tokyo Olympics. She said she made this decision in order to properly heal her injury and prepare for her senior season, where she will make another run at a national title and Female Athlete of the Year. 

Freshman of the Year: Danielle Pavinelli 

By Karina Wilson

Danielle Pavinelli Cincy

Danielle Pavinelli plays against Cincinnati March 26. She scored her 100th goal of her career at UF Sunday.

Danielle Pavinelli had no problem adjusting to the college game upon entering The Swamp. 

The Gators’ lacrosse midfielder started in 18 out of 21 games during her freshman season and made her mark immediately. She recorded her first goal in orange and blue against the Louisville Cardinals February 13

From there, it was all gas, no breaks.

On March 28, Pavinelli recorded a career-high of four goals while playing against the Cincinnati Bearcats — one of four separate occasions where she tallied a hat trick, or three goals in one game. She rounded out the season with 30 goals, seven assists, 13 ground balls, nine draw controls and nine caused turnovers. The Northport, New York, native ranked fifth on the squad in points, goals and draw controls.

The two-time American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Week secured her spot on the All-AAC Second Team. She claimed the title of Freshman of the Year in the AAC to close out the 2021 season.

With a year of experience under her belt, it is safe to say Pavinelli is eager to return to the Donald R. Dizney Stadium and build off her first-year success.

Comeback Player of the Year: Garrett Milchin 

By Ryan Haley

Garrett Milchin

Garrett Milchin in 2017

Garrett Milchin appeared in 19 games for the Florida Gators baseball team in 2017. The freshman right-hander from Windermere, Florida, authored a 3.29 ERA, second-lowest among freshmen to only Tyler Dyson, and earned a 4-2 record with a pair of starts. In 11.1 innings of conference work, he led the team with a 1.59 ERA.

In his final appearance of 2017, a College World Series game against TCU on June 23, Milchin tore his Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) and needed offseason surgery. He underwent the same surgery a year later after another injury in practice.

Milchin missed a year. Then another. Then another. It took three seasons and 1,341 agonizing days before Milchin would see the mound for Florida again.

Athletes have given up careers for lesser setbacks, but Milchin kept his head down and worked, slowly rehabbing himself back into game shape.

He finally received a clean bill of health in 2021. Milchin appeared in a few spring scrimmages before seeing his first action with a start against North Florida on February 23, 44 months to the day after his Omaha exit as a freshman.

Milchin pitched only two innings against the Ospreys that night but surrendered three hits and a single unearned run. He consistently saw weekday action and ended the year with six starts, tied for fourth-most on the squad. In 21.2 innings on the mound, he let up 24 hits, struck out 20 batters and earned 12 runs on his way to a 4.98 ERA.

His shining moment came against the rival Florida State Seminoles on April 13, Milchin’s final start of the year. After a 1.2 inning disaster, including eight hits and seven earned runs against the Seminoles a month earlier, Milchin assumed the mound again and set an entirely different tone.

Milchin offered a career-high six innings against the Seminoles, suffocating their bats for three hits, one earned run and a new personal-best five strikeouts. Milchin didn’t quite re-establish himself as the same freshman force he was in 2017, but he proved he was again a key member of the Florida pitching stable.

Coach of the Year: Bryan Shelton 

By Ryan Zehnder

Coach Shelton

Florida men's tennis head coach Bryan Shelton. His team, represented by four players, saw its first action this past weekend in Nashville, Tennessee.

When former men’s tennis coach Andy Jackson left the program after the 2012 season, the task was clear: hire a coach who could take Florida tennis to the next level. Under Jackson, the team was consistently in contention for SEC and national titles. But to reach the summit of collegiate tennis, they needed pedigree. Enter Bryan Shelton.

Before coaching, Shelton enjoyed a decorated professional tennis career, reaching as high as 55th in ATP’s singles rankings. He took over as head coach of Georgia Tech women’s tennis in 2000, eventually leading the Yellow Jackets to a national title in 2007.

Florida had a perfect conference record, a pair of undefeated starters in 2021 and only two losses across the regular season and postseason as Shelton expertly arranged lineups all year.

The championship marked the culmination of five years of SEC dominance and consistent national finishes for the program. Foley brought in Shelton to lead Florida tennis to a national title, and that’s exactly what he achieved in 2021. 

Moment of the Year: Ben Shelton, son of head coach Bryan Shelton, clinches the national championship 

By Ryan Zehnder

Ben Shelton TCU

Ben Shelton celebrates during a match against TCU March 17.

It seemed almost too perfect to be true. Florida led the second-seeded Bears 3-1 in the title match, just one point away from clinching the national championship in Lake Nona, Florida. All eyes were glued to court five, where Ben Shelton was poised to record the team’s final point.

Now, head coach Bryan Shelton is not guilty of nepotism. His son Ben may play for Florida’s tennis team, but the freshman’s performance this season proved he earned his place on the roster. His athletic, energetic style of tennis captivated fans all year, but Ben forever immortalized his stellar season in one play.

Coach Shelton watched from the sidelines as his son served for a national championship. When Baylor’s Charlie Broom missed a forehand deep to solidify Shelton’s victory, the freshman threw his racket into the air in jubilation and was mobbed by his teammates.

His father fell to the ground with his face in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion. Florida had just won the national championship in storybook fashion, and no one was more excited than father and son. 

Team of the Year: Men’s Tennis 

By Ryan Zehnder

Mennis USF

Duarte Vale and Johannes Ingildsen against USF on May 9

Florida’s men’s tennis team was more than just national champions. The season will be remembered for how it ended, but this squad earns Team of the Year honors for more than just their title triumph.

After an opening weekend loss to Texas, Florida caught fire, winning 17 straight matches and clinching the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 seed. The winning streak encompassed both sides of conference play, and the Gators finished a perfect 12-0 in regular season SEC matches. 

Two Florida players boast active undefeated streaks of over 20 matches and both finished the year undefeated. Senior Josh Goodger finished the year 16-0 in dual play, while Sophomore Blaise Bicknell finished 23-0.

Statistical perfection is one thing, but Florida tennis also produced cinematic brilliance. In the hotly contested national championship against Baylor, it was none other than Ben Shelton, son of Head coach Bryan Shelton, who earned Florida’s title-winning point. 

The team brought home UF’s first national title in program history, the school’s only team national title in 2021 and the 42nd in school history.

Community Service Award: Lauren Waidner 

By Joseph Henry

Lauren Waidner at Mark Bostick Golf Course on February 22. UAA Communications photo by Courtney Culbreath

Lauren Waidner remained dedicated to service throughout her senior season on the Florida women’s golf team and earned a third straight nod to the SEC Community Service team. 

The Fleming Island, Florida, native competed in four of 10 events for the Gators this season. Her most notable impact came off the course at UF Health Shands hospital where she volunteers with Streetlight — a program dedicated to the support of adolescents and young adults with chronic illnesses. Waidner first discovered the program after kindling a strong friendship with an 18-year-old girl while working an internship at Shands in the summer of 2019. The girl left a profound impact on the golfer, bolstering her desires to become a doctor. 

Waidner’s reach in Gainesville goes beyond her work in the medical field. She can often be found at local schools boxing up shoes with the Florida Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Additionally, she helped plan a Climb for Cancer event — a one-day camp where children fighting cancer and their families are invited to spend time playing with student athletes. 

All the volunteer work Waidner did during her years at UF put the life she lived as a student athlete into perspective. She will continue to support causes that give back to those who are less fortunate than herself while starting medical school. 

Most Improved Player: Tre Mann 

By Jesse Richardson

Tre Mann Mizzou
Tre Mann against Mizzou March 4

Florida Gators basketball put forth a valiant effort in the 2021 March Madness tournament and overpowered Virginia Tech 75-70 in overtime before tripping up in the second round against Oral Roberts in a three-point upset.

Despite being sent home earlier than expected, the Gators still showed improvements throughout the season.

One athlete, guard Tre Mann, made more improvements than the rest. Mann withdrew his name from the 2020 NBA Draft to return to school and enhance his fundamentals on the court before going pro. 

In his freshman year, the Gainesville native only put up 5.3 points per game, shot 35.6 percent from the field and averaged 2.9 rebounds. Mann’s confidence grew along with himself his sophomore season; he hit the gym to bulk on 15 pounds of muscle. Mann and the squad used their new strength to overcome teams like West Virginia and rival Tennessee.

His numbers vastly improved in the 2021 season, and his point average blasted to 16 per game and shot percentage to 45 percent. In the final seven regular matchups, Mann averaged 20 points and even put up a remarkable 30 against the Volunteers.

Mann’s three-point shooting also saw an increase, going from 28% his freshman year to 40% in his second go around.

Mann settled into a starting role his sophomore year and earned his teammate’s trust with his clutch gene. He proved his trustworthiness with an ice-cold three-pointer to push Florida ahead of Virginia Tech in the tournament’s first round.

Now that Mann has proved to himself and scouts that he can lead an SEC program, the sophomore declared for the 2021 NBA Draft back in March to capitalize on his draft stock.

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