There were 12 University of Florida athletics teams that finished in the top five nationally in their respective sports during the 2017-18 season. This statistic, a program record, begged the question, who is the best coach among this crop of talented teams? Sports writers Alanis Thames, Andrew Huang, Chris O’Brien and Mark Stine nominated their picks in this alligatorSports Awards installment.
As the Florida Gators athletics season winds down, we look back at some of the best athletes…
Alanis: Pick any season over the past 10 years, and track and field coach Mike Holloway has made a case for Coach of the Year in all of them.
This season, he’s led his athletes to three team titles (NCAA Indoor Championships- men, SEC Outdoor Championships- men and women) and nine individual titles.
Florida’s men tied Georgia for the most First-Team All-Americans during the indoor season, and the Gators totaled 21 First-Team All-America honors during outdoors.
That success garnered Holloway an Indoor Coach of the Year award as well as South Region Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Coach of the Year accolades.
But it’s the intangibles that make Holloway my pick for Coach of the Year.
He’s developed trust with his athletes, which has translated to success during those big moments of the 2018 season.
One of those instances was this year’s SEC Outdoor Championships, where both of Holloway’s teams sat atop the standings heading into the final events of the competition.
It was time for the women to compete in the 4x400 relay, and Holloway decided to switch things up. With the title on the line, he assembled the group of Taylor Manson, Nikki Stephens, Sharrika Barnett and Taylor Sharpe, which hadn’t run the 4x400 together all season.
The 11th-year women’s coach (16th-year men’s) told his sprinters to believe in him, and the quartet ran the second-fastest time in school history to propel UF to its first-ever SEC Outdoors sweep.
But if you ask Holloway about his success as a coach, he’ll credit his athletes, coaching staff or the culture that they’ve built in the years leading to this season. Those little things don’t show up on the stat sheets, but they’re what make Holloway one of Florida athletics’ most valuable assets.
Andrew: My goodness, where to start. Mary Wise has had a truly exceptional coaching career, one that has spanned 31 seasons. But this award is for the best UF coach of the 2017-2018 academic year, not for his or her career. Fortunately, her coaching job with this past season’s volleyball team is a shining microcosm of her 27 years in Gainesville.
She’s the ultimate trailblazer. No other female Division I volleyball coach has more career wins than Wise. Her 905 victories as a head coach is fifth all-time in the NCAA. No other female Division I volleyball coach has led her team to the NCAA championship game. Wise has done it twice, most recently last season.
Oh, and she was voted the 2017 AVCA (American Volleyball Coaches Association) Coach of the Year.
While the Gators fell to Nebraska in the title game, they did get the better of the Cornhuskers earlier in the season. In all, Florida was 11-2 against NCAA Tournament-qualifiers. They finished the season with a 30-2 record overall, the most wins by the program since 2006. A 17-1 conference record earned the team it’s 23rd SEC Title under Wise.
As a beat writer for this team, I can tell you with certainty that Mary Wise brings a magnetic presence into every room she enters. Her players adore her; every one of them I talked to considers her a mother figure. They would never have gotten to where they were as volleyball players – and this is coming from five 2017 AVCA All-Americans – without Wise, they say.
But Wise’s response to this praise says everything about her character: “This program’s success is a reflection of the talent that’s come through it.”
She won the right way, and she won a lot.
Chris: This is an easy one for me. I watched him from a distance and then had a chance to cover him during his team’s postseason run, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan was the best coach this year. Throughout the entire regular season, the Gators never dropped below No. 2 in the national baseball rankings.
O’Sullivan amassed a 49-21 record and captained a team that was just one game away from the College World Series final.
Three of his players (pitchers Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar plus third baseman Jonathan India) were drafted in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft, and he had a total of seven Gators hear their names called in the event.
Forget all the stats though. Let’s focus on one instance of brilliance for O’Sullivan.
In Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional (an elimination game that sent the winner to the CWS) against the Auburn Tigers, with center fielder Nick Horvath at first and the speedy second baseman Blake Reese at third, a struggling Jonah Girand stepped up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning. After receiving Gainesville Regional MVP honors, Girand was abysmal in the Super Regional and failed to record a hit.
Rather than watch Girand strike out again, O’Sullivan called a double steal where Horvath acted as if he fell over on the way to second. The pitcher stepped off the mound and went to tag the center fielder, failing to realize that Reese took off toward home. By the time he figured out he’d been duped, Reese crossed the plate and gave the Gators a 2-1 lead.
O’Sullivan knew Girand had been struggling and that Reese had speed, and he executed the risky play that put his team through. Florida needed the run too, as it went on to win on a walk-off home run in the 11th inning - plus, Girand struck out in the same at-bat.
Plays like this make O’Sullivan my Coach of the Year.
Mark: Even though head coach Tim Walton did a terrific job leading Florida to its fourth-straight conference regular-season title and second-straight Women’s College World Series appearance, the most valuable piece in the Gators’ success was pitching coach Jennifer Rocha.
Despite the loss of two-time All-American pitcher Delanie Gourley to graduation, Rocha and the UF pitching staff posted elite team numbers in 2018, her first season as the team’s associate head coach.
Behind the veteran leadership in the circle with senior Aleshia Ocasio and junior Kelly Barnhill and the pitch calling of Rocha, Florida won both the SEC regular season and tournament titles.
The Gators posted elite pitching numbers as a team last season. They led the nation in strikeouts with 574. The nearest SEC team was Mississippi State at 416. They also finished fifth in the country in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.04) and tied for sixth in ERA with a mark of 1.43.
UF threw 30 shutouts in 2018, 10 of which were no-hitters. The hitless performances included two perfect games from Barnhill against North Florida on Feb. 14 and Georgia Southern on Feb. 25.
Florida also threw three combined no-hitters. Barnhill and Ocasio combined to no-hit Baylor on March 3 and Bethune-Cookman on March 18. Freshman Natalie Lugo completed Ocasio’s hitless start against Hampton on March 30.
Ocasio also threw six hitless innings in regional play against Ohio State on May 20, the only postseason no-hitter in Rocha’s 12 seasons at UF.
Ocasio and Barnhill are two of seven All-American pitchers that have been coached by Rocha.