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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Hispanic student-athletes at UF: A history

Throughout the Gators’ history, Hispanic student-athletes have made major impacts

Senior pitcher Aleshia Ocasio threw her final outing for the Gators in their 2-0 lost to Oklahoma at the Women's College World Series. Ocasio and starter Kelly Barnhill combined for only three hits, but their efforts weren't enough to save UF's season.
Senior pitcher Aleshia Ocasio threw her final outing for the Gators in their 2-0 lost to Oklahoma at the Women's College World Series. Ocasio and starter Kelly Barnhill combined for only three hits, but their efforts weren't enough to save UF's season.

Florida has more than 500 student-athletes as of Spring 2023. Of that large population, 46 — or roughly 9% — are Hispanic. Despite the low overall numbers, Hispanic athletes have long made major contributions to countless UF sports teams.

For Hispanic Heritage Month, alligatorSports is highlighting some of these trailblazers and Gators legends whose stories can sometimes get lost in the world of Gators sports.

Carlos Alvarez — 1969-1971 football

Alvarez is one of the most prominent Hispanic athletes in Florida history. The “Cuban Comet” became a superstar wide receiver for the Gators on the gridiron in the late ’60s and early ’70s after his family fled from Havana to Miami in 1960.

Even over 50 years after his final snap at Florida Field, Alvarez is still UF’s all-time leading receiver with 2,563 career yards. He’s also the all-time leader in single-season and single-game receptions with 88 and 15, respectively. Alvarez earned consensus All-American honors in 1969.

He was inducted into Florida’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2011. He is one of 10 Gators in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Ralph Ortega — 1971-1974 football

Following in Alvarez’s footsteps, Ortega became the next great Cuban star for the Florida football team. The imposing linebacker became one of the faces of the Gators’ defense in the early ’70s.

In 1973, Ortega helped upset then-rivals Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time ever. Ortega stuffed the Tigers’ tailback and forced a key fumble deep in Florida territory before halftime in the eventual 12-8 win. 

Ortega earned first-team All-American honors in 1974 and first-team All-SEC honors in 1973 and 1974. He was inducted into the UF Athletics Hall of Fame in 1978.

Dara Torres — 1986-1989 swimming

Torres, the daughter of a Cuban real-estate developer, is as decorated as any Olympic athlete in Gators history. The Los Angeles native won 12 Olympic medals in her career — tied for most-ever by an American woman — including four gold medals.

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At Florida, Torres dominated in the pool. She won nine championships in her college career and earned NCAA swimmer of the year and SEC athlete of the year honors in 1988. She even lettered in volleyball after her swimming eligibility ran out in 1990.

Torres became the first female swimmer to compete in the Olympics in her 40s in the 2008 games. She also became the first American swimmer to compete in five Olympic games.

Áurea Cruz — 2000-2003 volleyball

Cruz is one of the most accomplished volleyball players in UF history. In addition to her legacy with the Gators, she’s also arguably the greatest women’s volleyball player in Puerto Rican history.

At Florida, she dominated for four years. Cruz earned AVCA first-team All-American honors three times and won SEC player of the year three times. She helped the Gators win four-consecutive regular season conference titles and reached the national championship for the first time in program history in 2003.

Cruz is still Florida’s all-time leader in kills with 1,815 and points with 2,188.5. She’s also eighth all-time in career digs with 1,320. She was inducted into the UF Athletics Hall of Fame in 2014.

After leaving the Gators, Cruz went on to have a distinguished professional and international career. She capped her sparkling career by representing Puerto Rico at the 2016 Olympics.

Al Horford — 2004-2007 men’s basketball

Horford, who was born in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, was one of the anchors of a Gators men’s basketball team that won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007. 

He played power forward and center for Florida alongside fellow Gator great Joakim Noah.

Horford played in 109 games and started 100 of them in three seasons at Florida. His college career took a major leap his second year. Horford averaged 11.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game, and he helped UF hoist its first ever men’s basketball title in 2006. 

Horford returned his junior year and built on a solid second year. He was named an Associated Press Third-Team All-American and was named the SEC tournament MVP as the Gators won a second-straight national title. 

The Atlanta Hawks drafted Horford with the third overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft. Horford has managed to carve out a successful 16-year career compiling several accolades such as five-time NBA All-star, 2011 Third-Team All-NBA Third Team and NBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2018.

Eddy Piñeiro — 2016-2017 football

Piñeiro’s path to football started on the soccer pitch, but his performance as a kicker in college bolstered him into a starter in the NFL. 

Piñeiro, whose parents come from Cuban and Nicaraguan descent, was a standout soccer player in high school in Miami and at ASA Community College. He played just seven games of football in high school before joining the Gators football team for the 2016 season. 

He played in 24 games across two seasons at UF. 

The Miami native finished his Florida career with an 88.4% field goal conversion rate. which ranks first in Gators history. He also ranks sixth in made field goals with a college career-long of 54 yards.

In his second season in 2017, he had a 94.4 field goal conversion rate — connecting on 17 of his 18 attempts — which ranked as the best rate in the nation that season. 

Piñeiro declared for the NFL draft after the 2017 season. He went undrafted but signed with the Oakland Raiders in 2018. He has since played for four NFL teams rosters and is currently the starting kicker for the Carolina Panthers. 

Aleshia Ocasio — 2015-2018 softball 

Ocasio made a major impact from the moment she joined the Gators softball team. She’s represented the Puerto Rican women’s softball team since 2015 and became a significant two-way player for UF in her four years in Gainesville. 

She shut down hitters all four years with a 1.41 earned runs average — which ranks seventh all-time at UF —  and won 71 of her 119 appearances on the mound. She set the program record for combined shutouts with 25. She also kept hitters guessing with 549 strikeouts — good for seventh all-time in program history.Ocasio also pitched the Gators’ first NCAA postseason seven-inning complete-game no hitter. She made the 2015 All-SEC Freshman team as Florida won the 2015 national championship. From 2016 to 2018, she was named to the First Team All-SEC.

Ocasio also contributed to the offensive side of the game. Her eight triples ranked top 10 all-time in UF softball history. She also compiled 73 runs batted in during her four-year career. 

Marina Escobar - 2019 - current women’s golf

Escobar has been a key contributor to the Gators women’s golf team. In her senior year, she played in seven tournaments and played in the No. 1 spot for NCAA Regionals for the second consecutive season.

She stood out in the SEC Championship with two top-10 and top-25 finishes and finished with a season-best T4. 

In her junior year, she won her match 3&2 to send Florida to the SEC Championship finals for the first time in UF program history.

Contact Jackson Reyes Topher Adams at and Follow them on Twitter @JacksnReyes and @Topher_Adams.

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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.

Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.

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