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Florida’s players shouldn’t spend much time hanging their heads over the CWS Championship Series loss to South Carolina.
Sure, the Gators entered the title series favored to beat the Gamecocks and win their first national title. But in case you didn’t watch the College World Series, it’s safe to say South Carolina was a team throughout the past two weeks with destiny on its side.
Perhaps that destiny will shift from the Gamecocks to the Gators in the offseason. Either way, this Florida program isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, the Gators only have touched the surface of what they’re capable of as a program.
“We put ourselves in good positions this series, but couldn’t quite get over the hump,” Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “That was the difference in the title series.”
Getting over the most challenging hump – winning a national title – will be the top priority for the Gators as the offseason continues and fall workouts loom in the distance. This program, though, has made major strides the past few seasons – even if O’Sullivan and the players would rather focus on what could be and not what has happened.
The 2011 campaign was O’Sullivan’s fourth with the Gators. He previously carried the Gators to an NCAA Regional in 2008, an NCAA Super Regional in ’09, and of course, the program’s first CWS appearance since 2005 in ’09.
In addition to his success the past few seasons, O’Sullivan and his coaching staff have recruited at an extremely high level, setting the framework for an incredibly bright future.
When the Gators reached the CWS in ’09, their trip to Omaha was short-lived. They dropped two-straight games – one to rival Florida State – and were headed home after just a couple of days. This go-round in Omaha, the Gators spent the entire tournament there and played the Gamecocks to a very challenging series.
Again, the Gators didn’t win the series. But they took yet another step forward.
“It’s pretty hard to get there [playing for the national title] and even harder to win it. That makes it even more impressive to me that South Carolina has won this thing back-to-back,” O’Sullivan said. “I’m disappointed, and today’s probably not the best time to have this perspective, but I am not going to let our guys hang their heads. This is an incredibly hard thing to finish off.”
The Gators had an eventful trek to the national title series. They won the SEC regular season and tournament titles, an NCAA Regional, a surprisingly difficult NCAA Super Regional against gritty Mississippi State. And perhaps most impressive, they were able to get through three first-round pitchers in Texas’ Taylor Jungmann and Vanderbilt’s Grayson Garvin and Sonny Gray to get the chance to face the Gamecocks.
The Gators, who still were young this season, should use the experiences learned from the campaign -- especially in Omaha -- to their advantage in 2012 and beyond.
“I don’t even think it’s just about next year. It’s about the year after that, and the year after that,” O’Sullivan said. “When we first got here, our goal was to create some consistency. We want to contend for the national title year in and out. We know we’re going to be in the mix each year. Going into each season, we want to at least have things in place to contend for it.”
Great thing for the Gators, there’s a good chance – just like this season – they’ll enter the ’12 campaign as the nation’s top-ranked team.
There’s a good reason for that. From a pitching standpoint, the Gators welcome back all three weekend starters in right-handers Hudson Randall and Karsten Whitson and left-hander Brian Johnson. There’s also a chance left-handed starter Alex Panteliodis returns for his senior season. Panteliodis, who pitched well in Omaha, was the New York Mets’ ninth-round pick.
Bullpen-wise, the Gators look for greater contributions from Daniel Gibson and Keenan Kish, while also returning Austin Maddox and Steven Rodriguez. Tommy Toledo and Anthony DeSclafani also could return, while there’s a good chance key bullpen cog Greg Larson is back for another campaign.
Toledo was an 11th-round pick to the Brewers, DeSclafani was a sixth-round pick of the Blue Jays and Larson was a 29th-round pick to the Angels.
“I feel very good about our pitching staff for next year,” O’Sullivan said. “Anytime you get back your entire weekend rotation, you feel good about your situation. That doesn’t happen often. Getting Greg Larson back is the whole key to our situation on the mound.”
Offensively, the Gators will welcome back several key pieces next season, including third baseman Cody Dent, shortstop Nolan Fontana, first baseman Brian Johnson, outfielder Daniel Pigott and catcher Mike Zunino. The Gators also will welcome back Austin Maddox, Zack Powers and Vickash Ramjit, while there’s a decent chance Tyler Thompson and Preston Tucker return after getting drafted in the 46th and 16th rounds, respectively.
As the summer continues, the Gators undoubtedly will have moments when they’ll reflect on the ’11 campaign and experience some heartache. But once fall workouts arrive, this team will move forward and be focused on the task ahead.
They still have a national title to win.
“Regardless of wins and losses, we want to have all the pieces together next season and beyond,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ll back there [Omaha] to finish things off.”
Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Perfect Game USA and has covered the sport for over 10 seasons. He can be reached at email@example.com