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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Florida earns No. 3-seed in NCAA Tournament despite near sub .500 season

The Gators will take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Stillwater Regional May 31

The Florida Gators baseball team huddles in the outfield prior to its game against Mississippi State on Sunday, March 31, 2024 at Condron Family Ballpark in Gainesville, Florida.
The Florida Gators baseball team huddles in the outfield prior to its game against Mississippi State on Sunday, March 31, 2024 at Condron Family Ballpark in Gainesville, Florida.

The Florida Gators baseball team hoped for a solid seeding as it tuned in to the college baseball tournament selection show after conference tournament play concluded.

What would’ve been a brutal blow for UF was the possibility the team had of being left out of the field of 64 teams who would have the opportunity to compete for a national championship.

Before the Gators even played a game this season, expectations were lofty. Florida ranked inside the top 5 in nearly every preseason NCAA Division I baseball ranking.

“The frustrating thing for this team…has been the inability to be consistent,” said Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan. “We’ve shown the ability to play with some of the best teams in the country, but then [we] turn around and for whatever reason, we take a step back…I firmly believe if we can get into a regional, we can do some damage.”

The preseason hype perhaps came with good reasoning considering the campaign O’Sullivan constructed last season. 

The Gators put together their strongest record in program history at 54-17. But Florida fell one win shy of its ultimate goal after suffering a deciding Game 3 loss to LSU in the Men’s College World Series Finals.

As Florida arrived back in Gainesville following its deep run in Omaha, it was time for several key members from the national runner-up squad to turn the page. A total of six Gators from last year’s roster departed for the MLB including two starting pitchers and four starting position players.

O’Sullivan added several new additions via the transfer portal last offseason to round out his roster, but perhaps none were as highly regarded as former Alabama sophomore shortstop Colby Shelton who raked a .300 batting average with 25 home runs. Shelton was the No. 5 overall ranked transfer according to D1 Baseball when he signed with UF. Shelton’s contributions helped the Gators pull out wins in numerous victories in meaningful games this season, but he and his teammates will have their backs against the wall in a win-or-go-home regional.

Every time the team runs through a period of success, the next year comes with even more difficulty to match the previous year’s promise, O’Sullivan said.

Not only were last year’s upperclassmen’s presence on the field and in the box score significantly missed this season, but the Gators’ leadership qualities off the field and in the locker room were an influential absence with the loss of prominent older players.

However, UF was still looked at as one of the most elite teams in the nation. It had a strong returning core from junior two-way sensation Jac Caglianone to sophomore second baseman Cade Kurland, sophomore catcher Luke Heyman, and junior outfielders Ty Evans, Tyler Shelnut.

With the experience Shelnut had appearing in the Men’s College World Series Final, he knows what it will take to make a deep run in the postseason.

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“Only thing we can do is put our head down and have a sense of urgency,” Shelnut said. “Every game means something whether it’s JU on a Tuesday or Vandy on the weekend…Every game means something at this point so you can’t take a day off, you can’t take a pitch off.”

UF entered its SEC slate 10-6 including a trio of unexpected losses to St. John’s, St. Mary’s and Stetson. But a sense of optimism for Florida fans was restored after the Gators captured a series victory in their first SEC matchup of the season over then No. 4 Texas A&M.

Fresh off their series victory against the Aggies, the Gators followed it up with a midweek loss to Jacksonville. The Dolphins finished the year with just a 27-31 record. Florida’s inability to stack consecutive wins together throughout the season forced it to scratch and claw its way into the NCAA Tournament.

“We want to be at our best baseball at the end of the season, and that’s when everything really matters,” senior third baseman Dale Thomas said. “We gotta forget about all the past and continue to work on the future.”

This narrative didn’t seem like it would be an issue after UF secured its third-straight series victory over a ranked SEC opponent. The Gators took two out of three games against Mississippi State to close out March.

After coming out of the series against the Bulldogs ranked No. 2, Florida went almost seven-straight weeks without claiming a series win which included being swept by Missouri for the first time in Florida baseball history.

“I don't know what else to say other than it's disappointing,” O’Sullivan said following Game 3 against Missouri. “I mean, the bottom line is we've gotta get better, and we've got to executionally hit way better. It's extremely disappointing."

Following the series sweep to the Tigers, Florida went on a sub .500 11-12 stretch. The Gators were on the verge of being left out of the NCAA Tournament before gutting out a much-needed series victory in a rubber match over No. 9 Georgia to end their regular season.

The lack of execution from the middle to bottom of the batting order has been an issue for the Gators. Heyman, Kurland, Shelton, Donay and Thomas all watched their batting averages significantly decrease.

Despite the impressive statistical freshman campaigns that came to fruition from last year’s squad, sophomore slumps plagued Heyman, Kurland and Shelton’s season and failed to push UF’s offense to its full potential.

“Somebody in that group is gonna have to rise up and have a really good at bat in a key spot of the game,” O’Sullivan said. “Simple as that, somebody’s gotta rise up. Other than the few guys in our lineup that have had good years up until this point.”

There isn’t much time left for the bats to fix its issues for Florida’s offense as it awaits its regional matchup. 

The Gators will head into postseason play without one of their key contributors this season after Evans suffered a broken wrist in Game 2 against Kentucky. Evans hit for a .316 batting average with 61 hits which were both good for second best on the team.

Florida’s starting pitchers and relievers perpetuate another inconsistency for UF. The Gators failed to find a regular Friday starter for the entirety of the season as opposed to last year when former Gator right-handed pitcher Brandon Sproat was the bonafide ace for the squad who reached the national championship.

Moreover, this year’s Florida team didn’t have a single pitcher finish the regular season with an ERA below four. The hardships for O’Sullivan's pitching staff have varied from not executing on the bump to goofing off in the bullpen.

“We’ve tried everything to motivate them,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve lost three games to Florida State and in convincing fashion. Not to call anybody out, but we’ve got pitchers down in the bullpen messing around, and we’re down four in Tallahassee.”

Nonetheless, the Gators have proven they have the ability to compete with elite college baseball teams in the country. If UF can get hot at just the right time, it may have what it takes to make a miracle run to Omaha.

Florida is a No. 3-seed in the NCAA Men’s Baseball Tournament in the Stillwater Regional against Oklahoma State, Niagara and Nebraska. The Gators will play Game 1 May 31 at 3 p.m. against the Cornhuskers in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“Obviously, there’s been some ups and downs,” Donay said. “The whole team has the same goal: we want to go to Omaha. So [you] just gotta root for your teammates and hope for the best.”

Contact Max Tucker at Follow him on X @Max_Tuckr1.

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Max Tucker

Max Tucker is a junior transfer student at UF. After obtaining his A.A. in Journalism from Santa Fe College in 2023, he chose further his education at Florida's College of Journalism and Communications. Max is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a specialization in sports and media. He enjoys golfing and going to the beach with his friends in his free time.

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