Many Built Gator Baseball into National Champions

When J.J. Schwarz squeezed the final out of the College World Series clincher giving the Florida Gators their first national championship in baseball, my immediate elation quickly turned to thoughts of 1996. And ’98. And ’05 and ’11. The Gators first title was a long-time coming and wouldn’t have been possible without those teams and others building the program to where it is today. Kevin O’Sullivan has made Florida into one of the top five programs in the country, but he didn’t accomplish it alone. The struggles and pain of falling just short over the past three decades made Tuesday night’s celebration all the more sweet.

The Gators’ first appearance in the CWS was almost 30 years ago. Florida had been playing baseball for over 70 years at that point, but like so many of the other sports in the athletic program, success was very sporadic until the 1980s (UF won three national titles before 1980, two in golf and one in women’s swimming and diving; 36 have been won since). The 1988 baseball team won the SEC for the seventh time, set a then-school record of 48 wins, and confirmed Florida’s arrival as a national power with coach Joe Arnold. Herb Perry and Jamie McAndrew would go on to play in the majors.

Arnold led the Gators back to Omaha in 1991 with the most impressive postseason run in Florida history. The Gators didn’t drop a game in the SEC tournament or the NCAA Regional in securing their second CWS berth. They were led by the dynamic pitching duo of John Burke and Marc Valdes, both future big leaguers. Another future pro, Kevin Polcovich made the CWS all-tournament team. At Rosenblatt Stadium, Florida won for the first time, eliminating #1 seed Florida State. These Gators lost in the semifinals to LSU, and I’m sure the alums watched this year’s finals with a little more passion because of it.

Despite the upward trajectory of the program, Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley decided to part ways with Arnold in 1994 and hire Andy Lopez to manage the baseball program. Lopez had won a national title at Pepperdine and by his second year, the Gators seemed poised to duplicate the feat. Led by all-everything freshman Brad Wilkerson, the 1996 team was the best in school history to that point. Five future Major Leaguers were on the roster in Wilkerson, David Eckstein, Mark Ellis, Josh Fogg and Paul Rigdon. Plus, Chuck Hazzard was rewriting the offensive record books and appeared destined for superstardom as well. This squad was loaded. The CWS started with a bang when Wilkerson hit a grand slam to win the first game against Florida State. The Gators knocked off the Seminoles once more to reach the semifinals. Standing in their way again, LSU. And again it wasn’t to be as Florida was eliminated 2-1 in a heartbreaker.

Two years later, it seemed the Gators were on the cusp of finally achieving the ultimate prize. Three trips to Omaha, each time finishing better than the previous one, left Gator Nation confident. Oh and the 1998 team was amazing. I was there for all of it as a graduate school assistant in the sports information office assigned to baseball. I attended every home game keeping the official scorebook, tracking statistics, and helping with game recaps, notes, and interviews. It was an offensive powerhouse led by the greatest player in school history, Wilkerson. Wilkerson, Ellis, Fogg, and David Ross all made the majors from that team and all rank in the top 10 of any list of the best Gators in Major League Baseball history (my personal top 10 is Eckstein, Al Rosen, Ellis, Mike Stanley, Robby Thompson, Darren O’Day, Ross, Wilkerson, Fogg and Doug Corbett). The SEC regular season champs advanced to the CWS in one of the most thrilling games ever played at McKethan Stadium, a regional final won on a walk-off single in the bottom of the 11th by Derek Nicholson. They entered the College World Series as the #1 seed for the first time in school history and were the favorites for a title run. Seven lineup regulars hit over .330! But to win a championship, all the offense in the world sometimes isn’t enough. Thin pitching outside of closer Fogg and two-way player Wilkerson left the Gators vulnerable. They scored 23 runs in two games but bowed out of Omaha without winning a game. Disappointment at Rosenblatt was becoming a crushing trend.

Still two CWS trips in three years, Florida baseball was a program clearly established on the national level with expectations for more. Instead, it would be seven long years between trips to Nebraska. In that span, Lopez was let go and replaced by Pat McMahon. Under both coaches, Florida had plenty of talent during that time. Players like Tim Olson (.394/15/75 in 2000), Mark Kiger (.403 avg in ’02), Alex Hart (13-3/3.24 in ’02), Ryan Shealy (.379/23/80 in ’02), and Ben Harrison (40 HR and .342 avg from ’01-’04) kept the Gators competitive but ultimately on the outside looking in at national prominence.

That changed in 2005 when Matt LaPorta belted a school record 26 home runs, Alan Horne, Tommy Boss and Bryan Ball gave the Gators its best rotation in years, and Connor Falkenbach and O’Day were lights out in the bullpen. After a seven-year drought, the Gators didn’t just celebrate a berth in the CWS. The ’05 squad become the first to ever advance to the championship series and play for the title in Omaha. Unfortunately, the Gators couldn’t get past Texas and finished as the runner up.

The modern era of the Gators baseball program began two years later when Foley replaced McMahon with O’Sullivan. Under O’Sullivan, the Gators have made the NCAA tournament each of the past 10 years. There have been six College World Series appearances in the past eight seasons. Yet, the disappointing endings in Omaha continued. The 2010 squad was a familiar 0-2 in Omaha. In 2011, the Gators won a school-record 53 games, had eight players who would eventually play in the majors led by Mike Zunino and Preston Tucker, and were led by a dynamic starting pitching duo in Karsten Whitson and Hudson Randall. Still, they fell short in the CWS finals. In 2012, the team was just as good, with many of the same stars from ’11 as well as two-way studs Brian Johnson and Austin Maddox and yet once again were swept out 0-2. The Gators were back in 2015, led by Schwarz’s amazing freshman season, Harrison Bader, Logan Shore, and A.J. Puk among others. The second most impressive postseason run in school history included an SEC tournament title and eliminating both Florida State and Miami in the Super Regionals and CWS. Ultimately though, two one-run losses to eventual champion Virginia left the Gators short again. The 2016 team featured perhaps the greatest overall pitching staff in Florida history led by Shore, Puk, Shaun Anderson, Dane Dunning, Kirby Snead and this year’s aces Alex Faedo and Brady Singer. But the offense didn’t hit much in Omaha and the Gators once again went 0-2.

Ten trips to the College World Series. Four exits without winning a game. Two losses in the championship finals. If you ask long-time Gators baseball fans what the most talented team in Gators history was, I’m not sure many of them will say it was this year’s squad. There will be lots of votes for 2015. Plenty will sing the praises of 1996 or 1998. Some will debate 2011 or 2012. Expectations this year despite the brilliance of Faedo, Singer and Michael Byrne were tempered due to the team’s lack of offense and the failures of those teams before them. Ironically, it was a Gators team without the pressure of those expectations that finally climbed the mountain. In the end, the ghosts of those Gators teams of the past created the culture, provided the spirit, and built the foundation for what was achieved in 2017. This title is as much for all of them as it is for this year’s bunch.

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