Experience Making the Difference

The difference between the first practice last spring and the one that took place on Friday isn't hard to figure out. It's experience. There was uncertainty at multiple positions last year before the season started, but this spring, even the position battles that haven't been settled feature players who have already proven they can contribute.

"It's always good to have experience," Florida right fielder Preston Tucker said. "We don't know what the lineup is, but we have a ton of guys who can fill in spots for us. The fact that we know that guys have been there with another year of experience, it'll help us when we need a guy to step up in a clutch situation."

When practice opened in the spring of 2010, the Gators had three of eight positions in the field locked down. Tucker, before switching to right field for this year, was coming off SEC Freshman of the Year honors, and there was no moving him away from first base.

Josh Adams was coming off back-to-back seasons that saw him earn All-SEC honors at second base, and Matt den Dekker was heading into his fourth year as the starter in center field.

But that was it.

As the season began, catcher Mike Zunino, shortstop Nolan Fontana and third baseman Austin Maddox all proved they belonged in the starting lineup as freshmen. Other positions remained in flux throughout the season.

This spring, the only departure from the team is den Dekker. The returning players have created hype around the team, even earning a No. 1 ranking in the country earlier in the week from Baseball America.

There's a different feel at McKethan Stadium as spring practice begins. It's more about fine-tuning for most players. There are still position battles, notably in left field and center field. If a bench player has a torrid start to the spring, the coaches can still have the flexibility to get the player at-bats.

However, it's the stability and returning talent that have earned Florida a top-three ranking in every poll out so far.

"It's just so much easier coming in as a sophomore than a freshman because you know what to expect," first baseman Brian Johnson said. "You know what you're going to get at practice and what you're going to do."

The experience of young players didn't force the Gators to compromise success last season. In fact, the team's play allowed them to play in big environments. The Gators clinched the SEC Championship last season in front of record crowds at South Carolina. Weeks later, they were playing before crowds in excess of 20,000 at the College World Series.

Seeing those environments as freshmen forced the team to mature before many expected them to.

"As a coach, you can give a player a lot," Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "You can coach in a lot of different ways and give them things to improve on. But, the one thing you cannot give a player is experience."

That's what makes the start of spring practice this year different. Five of the eight starters in the field on opening night are expected to be sophomores, and they have already played in the biggest environments in college baseball.

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