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Saturday, March 02, 2024

Florida baseball comes together on road to Omaha

Florida advanced to its first College World Series since 2018

Florida baseball sophomores Jac Caglianone and Blake Purnell give head coach Kevin O’Sullivan a Powerade bath after the Gators’ 4-0 win against South Carolina Saturday, June 10, 2023.
Florida baseball sophomores Jac Caglianone and Blake Purnell give head coach Kevin O’Sullivan a Powerade bath after the Gators’ 4-0 win against South Carolina Saturday, June 10, 2023.

Any Florida baseball fan could point to an individual’s performance on the 2023 Gators baseball team and label it as the reason for their success. In fact, it’s quite easy to pick out certain players.

Names like sophomore two-way player Jac Caglianone or junior outfielder Wyatt Langford were candidates for the Golden Spikes Award. Other newer faces like freshmen Cade Kurland and Luke Heyman were selected to the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman team. 

But when you ask the Gators locker room what went into the success of this team, the response is simple: playing for one another. 

Florida fifth-year catcher BT Riopelle put it into words after UF advanced to its first College World Series since 2018 in a 4-0 win against the South Carolina Gamecocks June 10.

“We just love each other, and we’re trying to win for each other,” Riopelle said.

Gators junior shortstop Josh Rivera chimed in on what it took for the team to play at this level.

“We just had to rely on the next guy to play their role off the field just as much as we need them to play their role on the field,” Rivera said. “Whether that’s getting on somebody to do their homework or making sure they're getting enough extra swings.”

After a historic regular season and a two-game sweep against South Carolina in the Gainesville Super Regional, Florida is headed to the 2023 College World Series.

“Our season’s not over,” said UF head coach Kevin O’Sullivan. “We’ll let this story play out, and we’ll see where it ends.”

Florida’s season was on the verge of ending after its 5-4 loss to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the Regional round June 3. The group didn’t falter and won three-straight elimination games — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished by the Gators since 1998. It positioned UF to face the Gamecocks in the Super Regional round. 

After a 5-4 victory June 9, the Gators needed one more win to make it to Omaha. 

“We’re just gonna try to play our best baseball,” O’Sullivan said, heading into game two. 

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UF junior right-hander Hurston Waldrep took the mound for Florida in the series-clinching matchup.

The Thomasville, Georgia, native had plenty of momentum after he tossed 12 strikeouts and surrendered one run against Connecticut June 4, but he undoubtedly one-upped his performance against the Gamecocks.

“As soon as I stepped on the mound, I knew it was gonna be a good day,” he said.

Waldrep surrendered three hits total and tossed 13 strikeouts in eight shutout innings.

“That was the best stuff he’s had all year,” Riopelle said. “He put his complete arsenal on display from pitch one.”

The righty was cushioned by an early lead provided by UF infielder Colby Halter — who struggled offensively during the latter part of the season and even sat on the bench for multiple games — with two outs in the second inning.

Riopelle began the top of the second with a full-count walk, and Heyman followed with a single. The two runners advanced an additional base with a groundout by junior outfielder Tyler Shelnut to set up Halter to deliver the finishing swing.

Halter drove a pitch down the right-field line for a two-out double. The Gators took a two-run lead, which was all that was necessary for the shutout performance from Waldrep.

The righty cruised until the ninth and All-SEC sophomore closer Brandon Neely entered the game after Waldrep allowed his first batter to reach base with a single.

Neely earned two quick outs and sealed the save and forced a routine pop out to Kurland at second. The freshman ventured just outside the perimeter of the infield, called off Caglianone at first, and as soon as the ball grazed the open mitt of Kurland, the dugout and bullpen cleared to form a dogpile toward the right of the mound.

A record-setting crowd of 8,851 raucous fans chanted “It’s great to be a Florida Gator,” as Waldrep was dumped with ice-cold water during his on-field postgame interview. Players made their way around the stadium to show their support and high-five the crowd of orange and blue. 

“It’s easy to go out and play in front of this many people,” Shelnut said after the Gators’ win June 9. “They push us. We want to get in touch with them as well as ourselves.”

All the success from the weekend draws back to the team-wide effort that Florida harped upon.

“We gotta just stick to what we’re doing as a team,” Rivera said. “It’s gotten us pretty far, and I’m excited to see where it takes us.

O’Sullivan made it explicit the run was all about the team. 

“I hate naming names because you start leaving people out,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s just a great group effort.”

The Gators will begin their College World Series run Friday against the Virginia Cavaliers. The start time will be released as Super Regionals conclude June 12. 

Contact Luke Adragna at ladragna@alligator.org. 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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