Purple and gold confetti trickled down from the night sky at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska. Florida baseball players leaned over the dugout fence expressionless, unable to look away as Louisiana State players stormed the field to embrace each other in celebration.
The jubilant smiles, tight hugs and championship hardware the Gators dreamt about all year suddenly transformed into a nightmare as they watched another team fulfill their dream.
The LSU Tigers defeated the Florida Gators 18-4 in the College World Series finale June 26. The Gators’ talent-filled roster fell just short when they met arguably the most able lineup in the nation.
“I don’t know,” UF senior catcher BT Riopelle said. “It just wasn’t really our day.”
Game three got off to a hopeful start.
Florida secured a pair of runs in the first inning when junior outfielder Wyatt Langford sent a ball soaring over the outfield wall and into a sea of fans for a two-run home run.
The lights shined too bright for UF two-way player Jac Caglianone, however. The lefty started the matchup strong before an early collapse. His inability to command the strike zone plated six runs for the Tigers in the second inning. LSU sealed Florida’s fate as the Tigers continued to tack on an outpour of runs.
Tigers freshman right-hander Gavin Guidry pitched the final six outs of the contest and struck out Gators junior infielder Colby Halter to clinch the national championship.
The Tigers stormed the field, and Florida players returned to the locker room one last time.
“It’s a hard pill to swallow right now,” UF head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said.
The second-place finish can be pointed back toward the insufficiencies among Florida’s starting pitchers. Starters Hurston Waldrep, Brandon Sproat and Caglianone combined for just 7.2 innings pitched in the championship round.
The insufficient performance was a complete turnaround for the rotation that threw a 2.17 earned run average against lineups all throughout the postseason.
“There were a lot of things that factor into it,” O’Sullivan said. “But I just think we didn’t command the ball as well as we should have.”
Though the Gators’ 2023 season will forever be remembered as the year they finished runners-up, to define it by one loss would be a complete disregard for the many accomplishments of its players throughout the season.
The Gators had a program-record 54 wins, hit the most home runs in program history and developed several high-round MLB Draft talents.
Waldrep and Sproat combined for 100 strikeouts each — the ninth duo to do so in Gators’ history — and Waldrep finished one strikeout shy of tying the single-season program record.
Players like Caglianone and junior shortstop Josh Rivera blossomed into stars. Rivera showed drastic improvements at the plate and impressive flashes of leather. After forgoing a pro contract and returning to UF for 2023, he's expected to hear his name called at the 2023 MLB Draft.
Caglianone, on the other hand, put his name on the map with his ability to play from both sides of the field. His 33 home runs broke the BBCOR-era home run set by Texas’ Ivan Melendez in 2021.
That, paired with his dominance on the mound, drew him comparisons to MLB All-Star Shohei Ohtani.
The word ‘dominance’ could easily define the Florida team that reached the College World Series for the first time since 2018. Though, resilience and tenacity have played just as much a role in the Gators’ historic season.
Nearly two dozen of Florida’s victories were delivered in come-from-behind fashion.
Florida began its College World Series run with a narrow walk-off victory against the Virginia Cavaliers. The Gators entered the ninth inning down a pair, but after two solo home runs from juniors Langford and Ty Evans, Florida tied it. Freshman designated hitter Luke Heyman delivered the final score and walked off the contest with a sacrifice fly to center field.
The Gators would have never even made it to the College World Series if it weren’t for clutch performances from the not-so-big names in the NCAA Regional Round.
Florida needed to win three-straight elimination games to advance to the NCAA Super Regionals round after they fell to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in their second game of regionals. Waldrep, sophomore Ryan Slater and freshman Cade Fisher threw three of the season’s most dominant pitching performances and secured the needed victories and advanced UF to the Super Regional round.
The Gators’ gritty and resilient wins, in their eyes, were a testament to the work they’d done to restore the program.
“When I first got here, the program wasn’t talked about very highly,” Riopelle said. “This program is back to where it needs to be, not only competing for championships but it’s made up of great people.”
Florida baseball won’t play its next game until the 2024 NCAA baseball season begins.
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.