Dale Thomas found himself at a crossroads after the 2022 college baseball season.
The then-sophomore infielder had just completed his third season with the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers and found himself searching for a school closer to his home in De Leon Springs, Florida. He wanted to be closer to his father, Dennis, who was experiencing a difficult health period.
Thomas bet on himself and entered the transfer portal. He hoped a school in his home state would have a spot open for a versatile infield bat. Luckily, he caught the eye of Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and his coaching staff.
Before offering Thomas a spot on the roster, the coaching staff called senior catcher BT Riopelle, who spent 2019 through 2021 at Coastal Carolina and was teammates with Thomas for the latter two years. Riopelle, a Georgia native, transferred to UF before the 2022 season and will use his last year of eligibility this season.
“[They] asked me about it and I was like, ‘Hey, what do you have on this guy?’” Riopelle said. “Sully prides himself on having championship players in this program.”
The coaching staff peppered him with questions about Thomas’ character rather than his play, Riopelle said.
“He's just a bulldog,” Riopelle told them. “He goes after people. He’s very competitive. He'll talk trash. He'll do all these things that Sully really likes, and it was just a perfect player fit for this program.”
Thomas, who grew up attending UF baseball and football games with his grandfather, announced his commitment to the Gators June 24, 2022.
“As a kid growing up, you always have that dream of playing for the Gators,” Thomas said. “Luckily, everything fell in line.”
Riopelle and Thomas couldn’t connect while they were playing together through the coronavirus pandemic.
But since Thomas’ arrival in Gainesville, their chemistry has taken off. The former Chanticleers are now roommates — Riopelle said it makes him like Thomas a little bit less — and have rediscovered the relationship they shared on the diamond in Conway, South Carolina.
“Having somebody here that I can relate to from the camaraderie we had at Coastal and bringing it here, it’s been awesome,” Riopelle said.
Thomas thinks being around Riopelle again will have an impact both on and off the field, he said.
“BT has always been one of those guys, for me at least, that you look up to,” Thomas said. “He just makes you a better person.”
The duo share hunting and fishing as hobbies. Thomas suggested a hunting trip together may be in their future after the season.
Riopelle spent most of his hunting time in South Carolina on the ponds of a friend’s 2,000-acre plot of land. He’d be willing to give Montana a try, which is Thomas’ favorite hunting spot, he said.
Another element that connects Riopelle and Thomas are the two legendary coaches they’ve played for. Both have seen firsthand the coaching styles of Gary Gilmore at Coastal Carolina and O’Sullivan at Florida.
Gilmore has led Coastal since 1996 and won the program’s only national title in its first College World Series tournament appearance in 2016. O’Sullivan has been at the helm in Gainesville since 2008 and brought UF its first title in 2017.
Riopelle credits Gilmore with developing undervalued players to reach their full potential.
“Being at Coastal, it really taught you how to be an underdog and always fight for what you deserve,” Thomas said.
They both praised O’Sullivan’s ability to develop his players into top Major League Baseball draft picks.
“He teaches us all the little things we need to know and gives us all the resources anybody could ask for to help us thrive, not only in baseball, but also in your academic career,” Thomas said.
Now a junior, Thomas is coming off a 2022 season in which he set career highs in multiple offensive categories with 62 hits, a .284 batting average, 13 home runs, 15 doubles and 49 runs. Thomas, who played 50 games at third base last year and 40 games at second base the year before under Gilmore, will be a swiss-army infield tool for O’Sullivan.
The opportunity to play for a nationally ranked program like Florida is one he doesn’t take lightly, he said.
“I'm always going to come out and compete, give everything I have in practice and games, no matter what it is,” Thomas said. “That's every kid's dream. Come out here, play in front of fans that support and love them, and just give everything you have for that program.”
Riopelle, who has no plans to pursue professional baseball after college, said he puts the team’s accomplishments before his own. He led all SEC catchers last year in home runs (15), RBI (55) and slugging percentage (.551).
“We're just going to play loose,” Riopelle said. “I want to take the pressure off myself. I feel like any good player does that.”
During Florida’s second preseason intrasquad scrimmage Jan. 28, Riopelle and Thomas were sorted into the “Orange” and “Blue” teams, respectively. As the game moved along, Thomas found himself as a baserunner on third while Riopelle was behind the plate. He took his lead off the bag, while a runner at first base did the same.
After a pitch, the runner at first broke for second in a delayed steal attempt, trying to bait a throw from Riopelle that would allow a chance for Thomas to score from third.
Unfortunately for Thomas, Riopelle didn’t fall for it.
Upon seeing the runner take off from first, Thomas went into a dead sprint while Riopelle sat at home plate with the ball waiting for him. Despite an athletic dive into home plate, Thomas was easily tagged out. He acknowledged his slight miscalculation with a wide grin toward his old friend. Riopelle returned the smile as Thomas jogged sheepishly towards the dugout.
“I'm always going to have a smile on my face and just keep grinding because I want to win a national championship with this group of guys,” Thomas said. “These guys are my brothers, and I'm beyond grateful for them.”
Riopelle earned the fans’ adoration in his first season in Florida pinstripes with his choice of walk-up song. “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus blared through the Condron Family Ballpark speakers every time Riopelle came up to bat. Riopelle has used the song his entire college career and confirmed he has no plans to change it.
“Let’s just say that the one weekend I didn't use that walk-up song… I struck out 12 times,” Riopelle said.
How does Thomas hope to compete with Miley? He hopes “Raised on Red” by Heath Sanders will resonate with the Florida faithful.
“It reminds me a lot of me and where I come from and basically puts me back in my roots,” Thomas said.
Fans will have plenty of time to hear both songs, as 20 of the first 22 regular season games will be played in Gainesville.
Riopelle, Thomas and the rest of the Florida Gators take the field for the first time at 7 p.m. Feb. 17 at Condron Ballpark against Charleston Southern.
Contact Ethan Eibe at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EthanEibe.
Ethan Eibe is a second-year UF sports media major and covers Gators baseball for The Alligator. Outside of his writing, Ethan is a play-by-play broadcaster for UF student radio and has spent two summers announcing professional baseball with the Alpine Cowboys. He is a long-suffering Miami Marlins fan.