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Monday, June 17, 2024

Florida faces biggest test yet in NCAA Super Regionals

The Gators are set to kick off Super Regionals against South Carolina Friday at 6 p.m.

Florida baseball infielders Josh Rivera and Cade Kurland embrace during the Gators' 3-0 win against Florida A&M Friday, June 2, 2023.
Florida baseball infielders Josh Rivera and Cade Kurland embrace during the Gators' 3-0 win against Florida A&M Friday, June 2, 2023.

The Florida Gators’ season was one loss away from being over after Florida fell 5-4 to the Texas Tech Red Raiders Saturday. However, because of two key outings from junior right-hander Hurston Waldrep and freshman Cade Fisher, the Gators’ hopes remained alive.

Waldrep tossed 12 strikeouts and surrendered one run against the No. 10 Connecticut Huskies, and Fisher followed with seven innings of one-run baseball against Texas Tech on June 4. 

The performances set up sophomore right-hander Ryan Slater to deliver five scoreless innings in the regional finale, and UF defeated the Red Raiders 6-0 to advance to the National Collegiate Athletic Association Super Regionals for the first time since 2018.

The No. 2 seed Florida Gators (48-15, 20-10 SEC) are set to open a best-of-three series against the No. 15 seed South Carolina Gamecocks (42-19, 15-13 SEC) Friday in the NCAA Super Regionals at Condron Family Ballpark. The Gamecocks swept the Gators the last time the two teams met April 20-22. 

Since then, both ball clubs have undergone dramatic transformations.

The most glaring weakness for the Gators early in the year was the inconsistency among their bullpen. It appeared there were few reliable arms beyond sophomore closer Brandon Neely, who was unavailable for the teams’ earlier series after his controversial ejection against the Georgia Bulldogs April 16.

It left head coach Kevin O’Sullivan to fall back on eight different relievers who combined for an earned-run-average of nine.

“Guys need to step up,” O’Sullivan said after Florida’s 13-3 loss to the Gamecocks April 20. “It seems like a simple task, but we’re making it really difficult.”

Florida’s starting rotation also suffered its worst three-game performance of the season,surrendering 13 runs in 14.2 innings. Its offense scored a season-low ten runs across the weekend series.

The midseason sweep propelled the Gamecocks atop the Southeastern Conference standings. Since then,  South Carolina’s season has completely changed course with a 5-13 record after its series with UF. 

The two teams will face once again Friday, and the Gators have plenty of confidence after their regional performance.

“We definitely have a lot of confidence in ourselves,” Florida shortstop Josh Rivera said. “We know that if we all play our game and just attack and put up good ABs, good things will happen to us.”

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Good things have certainly been happening on both sides of the ball for the Gators, and certain players look to continue their performances from the weekend. 

Florida senior catcher BT Riopelle looked befuddled at the plate all weekend and rode an 0-16 skid entering the regional finale. Riopelle broke out of the slump and belted two home runs in the contest. 

Florida junior right fielder Tyler Shelnut broke out of an 0-14 slump and hit .454 in the final four games of the series, providing some support to the bottom of the order that’s been dormant as of late.

On the other side of the field, South Carolina’s offense that appeared silent throughout May made a sudden resurgence once the team entered June. 

The Gamecocks rounded out the Columbia regional with an onslaught of runs and tallied 41 runs and 41 hits in three games. 

South Carolina junior right-hander Will Sanders also seems to have found his footing after a rocky finish to his regular season. Sanders had been sidelined due to an ankle injury sustained May 5 against Kentucky, and made two appearances for the Gamecocks in the regionals. 

He surrendered no runs and waived eight strikeouts in four innings, seemingly returning him to his top-status from the beginning of the year.

O’Sullivan plans to return to his regular rotation of starters for this weekend’s series. Junior right-hander Brandon Sproat will start Friday, followed by Waldrep Saturday and left-hander Jac Caglianone if needed on Sunday.

The Super Regional round is set to get underway at 6 p.m. Friday. The game will broadcast on ESPN2.

“Really it’s just being prepared to play more baseball, and playoff baseball and higher stakes baseball,” Waldrep said. “Because everyone knows what’s next after this.” 

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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