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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Gators secure SEC title in regular-season finale against Kentucky

Florida was awarded the conference title following losses by Arkansas and LSU

Gators freshman Cade Kurland throws during Florida's 10-0 victory against Vanderbilt Friday, May 12, 2023.
Gators freshman Cade Kurland throws during Florida's 10-0 victory against Vanderbilt Friday, May 12, 2023.

The Florida Gators sat outside Kentucky Proud Park nervously surrounding a horizontal iPad screen that depicted the final inning of the Arkansas-Vanderbilt game. 

Florida defeated the Kentucky Wildcats earlier that day and needed a loss from the Arkansas Razorbacks in order to become the Southeastern Conference regular-season co-champions. Vanderbilt led 7-6 in the final frame and forced a ground ball double play for the last pair of outs. 

The entire UF team erupted. Head coach Kevin O’Sullivan high-stepped in joy, players banged poles and teammates jumped on one another in celebration of Florida’s 16th SEC championship.

The Gators were on the outside looking in for the Southeastern Conference regular-season crown before their series against the Vanderbilt Commodores May 12. 

Florida was two games back of first place in the SEC East and two games back of the Razorbacks for the league title.

UF swept its series against the Commodores for first place in the SEC East and positioned itself to have a chance at the SEC regular season title in its final regular season series against the Kentucky Wildcats.

The No. 4 Gators (42-13, 20-10 SEC) defeated the No. 19 Wildcats (36-17, 16-14 SEC) 5-2 May 20 to secure the series at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. 

Florida defeated the Wildcats 10-3 in game one May 18 but lost the second game of the series after they struck out fourteen times against Kentucky’s pitching staff. Despite the loss, the Gators still had a chance at the regular-season hardware in the series finale. 

Florida needed to earn one more victory and looked toward two-way sophomore Jac Caglianone to get the job done. 

Caglianone — who has been an offensive juggernaut for UF all season — struggled on the mound this season when playing away from Condron Family Ballpark. Caglianone dealt with command issues in each of his four road starts, with 23 walks in 11 innings for an 8.18 earned run average.

The series finale against Kentucky was different. Caglianone tossed seven scoreless innings in a back-and-forth pitching duel which lasted until the seventh frame. The Gators overcame their offensive woes and scored four runs in the inning. 

Caglianone was the first to break onto the scoreboard when he scored from third off a sacrifice-fly by senior catcher BT Riopelle. 

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Florida tacked on three more runs through the seventh off an up-the-middle single from freshman infielder Luke Heyman and a two-run blast from junior infielder Dale Thomas — who hit his first career knock as a Gator. Kentucky sophomore relief pitcher Evan Byers threw an offspeed pitch that leaked over the plate just enough for the Coastal Carolina transfer to send the ball over the right field wall.

The Wildcats attempted to chip away at UF’s lead and scored two runs in the eighth and ninth innings. The scores weren’t enough to overcome the four-run deficit.

The Gators succeeded in what they could control in pursuit of the regular-season SEC crown. Despite the win, UF needed losses from Arkansas and the Louisiana State Tigers in order to hoist the title of SEC regular season champs. 

After a lopsided defeat of the Tigers, the Gators needed just a loss from the Razorbacks. 

Arkansas led 6-4 in the sixth inning of the rubber match against the Commodores, and after going scoreless for two innings, Vanderbilt’s offense arose from the dead. Razorbacks freshman left-hander Parker Coil was substituted into the game in relief of junior right-handed starter Will McEntire to start the inning. 

The sophomore struck out his first batter but allowed hits to the next two hitters he faced. Coil then committed a balk that triggered a burst of runs. The Commodores scored three runs in the sixth inning and took a 7-6 lead. 

In the top of the ninth inning, Vanderbilt still preserved its one-run lead that suddenly looked at risk. 

Razorbacks freshman outfielder Mason Neville straddled the first base bag after being placed in the game to pinch-run for junior infielder Caleb Cali. With a 1-1 count, Arkansas senior infielder Brady Slavens swatted a chopping ground ball to second base that was tossed to second for the force out and fired to first to complete the double play. 

The Florida players that sat outside Kentucky Proud Park began to erupt. The Gators were named Co-SEC champions. 

The Gators are the No. 1-seed in the upcoming SEC Championship tournament. The title-run begins May 23 and Florida’s first game is May 24 against the winner of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Kentucky contest.

Contact Luke Adragna at Follow him on Twitter @lukeadrag.

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Luke Adragna

Luke Adragna is a third-year journalism student and the Florida Gators football reporter at The Alligator. He is a cat ethusiast and completes the NYT Daily Mini in less than a minute each day.

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