HOOVER, Ala. — The road to hosting an NCAA Regional in Gainesville was filled with more potholes and cracks than a UF construction site.
The Gators’ Southeastern Conference record sat at 6-12 April 24, putting their chances of making the tournament, let alone hosting a regional, into question. The team rallied, rattling off nine wins in 12 conference games to end the season. The SEC Tournament would be the final chance to assert themselves as worthy of a hosting placement, but even the trip to Hoover was not perfect.
After a 10-0 beatdown at the hands of the No. 2-seed Texas A&M Aggies Thursday, Florida faced three straight elimination games that would forecast the team’s regional fate. The Gators from early April, who at one point had lost eight of 12 conference games, would’ve more than likely folded after that kind of loss to the Aggies.
Instead, they kickstarted a three-game winning streak that sent the No. 7-seed Gators to the tournament final. Despite a beat-down at the hands of the No. 1-ranked Tennessee Volunteers in the tournament finale Sunday, Florida was awarded a home regional.
Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan emphasized the talent, albeit inexperience, of the pitching corps all year. After sophomore ace Hunter Barco was ruled out for the remainder of the year due to Tommy John surgery, the depth of the highly touted recruiting class was put to the test the remainder of the year.
The week was a barometer of the team’s bullpen.
UF’s top two pitchers, sophomore Brandon Sproat and freshman Brandon Neely, were used before the elimination games began. Florida’s chances to host a regional were in the hands of unlikely faces.
Redshirt junior Nick Pogue, who battled inconsistency as he recovered from his Tommy John surgery, allowed just two runs in five innings against No. 3-seed Razorbacks Friday. Saturday morning, against the red-hot Crimson Tide, redshirt freshman Nick Ficarrotta iced the game with 6.1 scoreless frames, setting up a do-over date with the No. 2-seed Aggies.
Sophomore Timmy Manning saw his first competitive game since April 5 against Texas A&M. The lefty rebounded from this season’s subpar outings and worked five scoreless frames in the semifinal against the No. 5 team in the country.
If anyone at Hoover Metropolitan Complex saw that coming, they should play the lottery.
The tournament-finale blowout at the hands of Tennessee was a disappointing end to the run, of course, but a demoralizing loss from the Volunteers is hardly out of the ordinary; entering Sunday’s final, the nation’s top team outscored opponents 27-5 in the tournament.
UF entered the tournament with an inoffensive 15-15 conference record. The Gators turned that into an aggregate record of 19-17: the kind of record that allows a ballclub to host a national tournament.
Mere hours after the team loaded the buses and headed back to Gainesville, Florida was announced as the No. 13 national seed and one of 16 teams hosting a regional. Oklahoma, Liberty and Central Michigan will make the trip to the Sunshine State as play begins Friday afternoon.
The 2022 Gator baseball season was akin to a “Final Destination” kind of roller coaster that goes off the rails, yet lands on a soft pillow and is granted an NCAA Regional.
“We had so many guys that didn’t really have a lot of positive contributions to the season on the field, they got their chance today,” junior catcher BT Riopelle said. “In the last couple of days they really made the most of their opportunities and we’re really excited about them moving forward.”
In spite of the loss to the Vols, Florida appears to be playing its best baseball at the right time with 16 wins in its last 21 games, and that is just what every team wants heading into postseason play.
The Gators have the deepest caverns of their bullpen to thank.
Carson Cashion is a third-year sports journalism major at UF, and the sports editor at The Alligator for the 2022 summer semester. A native of Altamonte Springs, Carson spends his free time walking his dog, Baxter, and listening to good music. He is an avid Tennessee sports fan, and eagerly awaits watching one of his teams win a championship for the first time.