Gators Set Sights on Trophy

OMAHA, Neb.— When Preston Tucker and Mike Zunino walked into the press conference room Sunday morning, there wasn't much focus on their surroundings. Once the door opened, their eyes locked onto the center of the long, elevated table at the front of the room. That's where the national championship trophy sat. Their quest for it begins Monday night.

"It's exciting just seeing how close you are to getting it," Florida first baseman-right fielder Preston Tucker said. "It's just a three-game series. Whoever is playing best at that time is going to win it. It's there for the taking; whoever wants it more is going to end up with the trophy."

Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan and South Carolina head coach Ray Tanner started the press conference by standing with the trophy for pictures. The eyes of the players, including South Carolina's Michael Roth and Scott Wingo, didn't move much from the trophy.

The look in the Florida players' eyes was a little different. There isn't a national championship trophy in the Florida baseball offices, as the school is still searching for its first national championship in baseball. O'Sullivan said confidently that there will be a team to win the first one for the Gators, and they're now hoping that it's this year's team.

The players recognize what an accomplishment it would be, too.

"It's something our school has never done," Zunino said. "It's something we set out to do this year. We want to try to make a statement. We're just a three-game series away, and we're going to give it everything we've got."

The Gamecocks are familiar with the trophy. The 2010 versions is sitting in a display case on the outfield concourse during home games and stashed away in the baseball offices when games aren't being played.

Their players are comfortable with the look of the trophy. It rode on the team plane back to Columbia after South Carolina beat UCLA in the championship series last season. They've all spent plenty of time admiring it, along with the murals added to Carolina Stadium to commemorate the team's accomplishment.

They've experienced what it's like to win a title, but that hasn't changed their desire to win this one, too.

"The trophy has 2011 engraved on it," South Carolina ace left-hander Michael Roth said. "We'd like to have it."

The Florida players wouldn't have this opportunity without what they did in Omaha last year. While the Gamecocks won the national championship, the Gators went two-and-out. They lost their opener to UCLA and eventually Florida was eliminated by Florida State.

They don't overlook the experience that playing in Omaha gave them.

"Getting a taste of Omaha was great, but it was obviously a disappointing ending," Tucker said. "I think we had a different mindset coming in this year. Last year was the first time for all the guys getting here, and it was a little overwhelming. I know it was for me. I think everyone's playing a little more comfortable, more relaxed this year, knowing that we have been there before."

Playing in front of 24,000 people can be a shock to any team, regardless of what their home attendance is. The Gators got used to the big crowds in Omaha during their trip last season, and it helped them settle into the environment when they got to Omaha this year.

"It definitely helps getting here before," Zunino said. "Getting a taste of Omaha helped, but we got a bad taste. We came out (this year) with more confidence and just a demeanor where we know what he had to get done."

There's still one step left.

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