Kevin O'Sullivan

Coach Kevin O'Sullivan's squad is undefeated at 5-0 heading into its series with Miami. 

The 16th and final NCAA baseball regional announced in 2017 was Gainesville. The Gators obviously knew they were in, but in Coral Gables, crowded around a television in the bowels of Mark Light Field, the Hurricanes huddled together and lunged toward the screen in anticipation.

Their faces sank in unison.

Their hats covered their flooded eyes. Their arms held their heads in surrender. Their lockers reading “Omaha” suddenly had less meaning. For the first time in 44 years, the Miami Hurricanes hadn’t made the postseason.

And the Florida Gators, whose regional was the last hope for the unusually middling ‘Canes (32-27), were part of the reason why.

Florida’s pitching dismantled Miami last February, shutting them out on Friday and Saturday before finally allowing two runs on Sunday in UF’s three-game sweep. And there’s reason to believe that trend could continue this year.

UF’s trio of starters — Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar and Tyler Dyson — looked polished on opening weekend. Singer, touted as the nation’s top MLB Draft prospect, didn’t allow an earned run in seven innings against Siena a week ago. His counterparts weren’t too far behind.

But it’s UF’s offense that has been making headlines so far this season, and it’ll look to continue doing so tonight when the No. 1 Gators (5-0) renew their once-a-year cross-state rivalry with the Miami Hurricanes (2-2) at 7 in Coral Gables.

“It means a lot to us,” outfielder Nelson Maldonado said. “We’re going over there with our heads held high, and we expect a lot going into the weekend.”

Maldonado has been Florida’s top hitter so far this season. Through five starts and 17 at-bats, he’s hitting .588 with five RBIs. He’s not alone in his production.

Senior captain JJ Schwarz is right behind him at .474 with five RBIs of his own. Six regular starters in all are hitting over .333.

One surprise contributor has been Wil Dalton, a junior college transfer. Although his JUCO numbers were straight out of baseball fan fiction — a .392 average with 60 runs and 58 RBIs — those stats don’t usually translate to the Division I level. Through five games, Dalton is exceeding them with a .471 average and a team-best nine RBIs.

“A lot of guys are off to a good start,” Schwarz said, “so hopefully we bring that into Miami.”

Miami, meanwhile, has showed shades of last season. The team’s only consistent hitter has been former Florida outfielder Danny Reyes.

Reyes played at Florida in 2016 but transferred to Broward College after the season. He’s now starting in left field for the Hurricanes, and he’s hitting .571.

Aside from knowing Reyes, many Florida players are also acquainted with some of Miami’s pitchers. Friday night starter Jeb Bargfeldt started against the Gators last year (six innings, two earned runs), and fellow weekend starter Evan McKendry pitched in relief (two innings, no earned runs).

“We’re familiar with a lot of their pitchers, and Danny Reyes, who’s off to a great start,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “It’ll be a good challenge for us to go on the road for the first time.”

Maldonado and Schwarz both had memories of raucous Miami fans from two years ago, noting that Hurricanes fans are loud and proud, which is probably why O’Sullivan thinks the experience will be good for younger players.

However, his veterans aren’t too worried about the noise.

“Their fans stay on you the whole time,” Schwarz said. “Hopefully we bring our best baseball so the fans don’t play a part in it.”

Follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri and contact him at [email protected]

Ethan Bauer is a general assignment sports reporter for the Alligator as well as the Florida Gators correspondent for the Miami Herald. He has previously covered cross country, women's basketball, football and baseball. He has worked at the paper since Sp