Gators More Experienced This Opening Day

When the Gators take the field Friday night at 7 p.m. to open their season against USF, the stability will be noticeable. They opened last season with unproven, young players all over the field. The younger players led the team to the College World Series last season, and now they return with experience under their belt.

The freshmen didn't play at a frantic pace much last season. If there was a time where they came close, it was on opening night. That also came against South Florida, and it's something that took the players by surprise.

"You play in a high school atmosphere and there are people in the crowds, but you come and play here with a lot of people in the crowds and you get really excited," said sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, who started behind the plate last year in his first college game. "I'm still going to be extremely excited (Friday night), but it'll be a little more relaxed just because I know what to expect."

The theme among the sophomore class comes with an understanding of what will happen. The energy will be high, since they haven't played a game since June 2010. The adrenaline will pump through their veins like it hasn't since they took the field in the College World Series last year.

One thing is for sure. They'll know how to handle it and try to calm themselves down.

"I'm going to be a little more settled down," said sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana, who also started on opening night last year. "After having a year under your belt, it's different."

Don't think that means Opening Night won't have a special feeling to it.

"I'm pretty sure those nerves will still be there," Fontana said. "You wait so long from the last game of the year to the first game of the year. We're all pretty excited about it."

The first step to this weekend comes in the weekend rotation. Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan and his staff spent the entire offseason trying to narrow down the rotation to the pitchers who gave them the best chance to win.

Sophomore left-hander Brian Johnson will make the opening night start for the Gators. USF senior right-hander Randy Fontanez, who went 5-7 with a 3.90 ERA last season, will oppose him.

Fontanez also started the season opener against the Gators last year, and he drew rave reviews. He gave up a two-run home run to Josh Adams and Austin Maddox in the first inning, but Fontanez settled in and found a groove after that.

"He's able to throw everything for strikes, and he competes," Zunino said of the USF ace. "He's got a good fastball and breaking ball. We're going to look for that to keep us off balance. I heard he took the fall off, but he's throwing pretty well. We just have to compete against him."

The Florida players were impressed with Fontanez's ability to forget about the runs and keep his team in the game.

"He's a go-getter and a grinder," Fontana said. "You can't ever tell if he's up seven or down seven. He shows a lot of composure. You've got to just keep tacking on and get to the bullpen. They've got a lot of good starters, so we're going to focus on working the count and getting into the bullpen."

The Saturday matchup will pit Florida sophomore right-hander Hudson Randall against USF senior left-hander Andrew Barbosa, who went 8-2 with a 2.40 ERA last season. Barbosa recorded 95 strikeouts in 86 innings last season.

Sunday will match two freshmen on the mound. USF will send left-hander Nick Gonzalez, while Florida will throw right-hander Karsten Whitson, who is one of the most hyped freshmen in the country this season.

Whitson turned down a reported $2.1 million after being the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft to pitch for the Gators. His mid 90s fastball and knockout slider were both ranked as plus pitches, but it's his changeup that has seen the most improvement since coming to campus. Whitson recorded 123 strikeouts in 55 innings as a senior at Chipley High School. He also only allowed 16 hits in that time.

The notable exemption from the weekend rotation is Alex Panteliodis, who won a team-high 11 games for the Gators lasts eason. O'Sullivan believes there is too much focus on the rotation to start the season, as it usually changes as the year goes on.

"There has been too much emphasis on who starts Friday, Saturday and Sunday," O'Sullivan said. "It's going to be a week-to-week thing. We've got five or six options as starting pitchers. We have a lot of depth, and that's probably our strength. But the lineup is never the same the opening weekend as it is at the end, and the same with the rotation."

Panteliodis isn't in the opening weekend rotation because the Gators will take their time in bringing him along. He missed the fall after hip surgery.

The junior left-hander will see work on the mound Friday night in relief to stay sharp for Tuesday, when he will make his first start of the season at FAU.

"He has been throwing great," O'Sullivan said about Panteliodis. "We've always been on the cautious side of things to let him work his way back into it. He's ready to go."

O'Sullivan expects the Florida pitchers to have a pitch count around 70, which he hopes will get them through at least five innings.

The Gators will also use this weekend to judge what they have in the bullpen. No roles are set as the series begins, but O'Sullivan hopes to have a better idea after the weekend.

"Maddox threw yesterday and was 93-94 (mph)," O'Sullivan said. "Is he our closer? I don't know. Is Paco (Rodriguez) our closer? Is (Nick) Maronde our closer? I don't know. Can Tommy Toledo go out there and shut down the 9th (inning)? I don't know. Is he one of our top three starters? I don't know. We're going to try a lot of things and see what happens. I wish I had more answers, but there are a lot of good players, and they all deserve to show what they can do the first 17-20 games."

The USF offense lost two of their top three hitters from last season. They return Luis Llerena, who lead the team by hitting .328 last season.

The Bulls don't have much power on their roster. Daniel Rockhold hit seven home runs last season to lead the team, but those numbers will be hurt with the new bats. No other returning player for USF hit more than five home runs last season.

They don't have much power on the roster, but it's a pesky team that will hit for average and be aggressive on the bases.

"We've done some scouting and watched some tape," Randall said. "We've got scouting reports up on the board about every (USF) hitter and pitcher. They're a decent team. They don't have too much power in their lineup. We can't take them lightly at all."

The Gators will look to continue early season success they have experienced since O'Sullivan took over for the 2008 season. Florida has recorded a sweep of its opening opponent in each of the first three weekend series they have played under O'Sullivan. It came against Siena in 2008, Louisville in 2009 and USF in 2010.

The Gators are 6-0 against USF under O'Sullivan, including 5-0 at home.

The Florida program is 8-1 in opening series since 2002, including winning 16 of its last 19 season openers at home.

Second baseman Josh Adams will start his fourth straight opening day and his second straight at second base. Last year against USF, he became the second Gator player to hit multiple home runs on opening night. Brad Wilkerson was the first.

Brian Johnson enters the season on a ten-game hitting streak, a career high.

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