Gators Glad it's the Post-Season

The grind is finally over. After starting the season as the No. 1 team in the country, the Gators are now to the part of the season that matters, but that didn't come without taking a lot out of players and coaches.

The expectation to be perfect every time on the field was a burden. That didn't keep them from succeeding, but the focus quickly turns to the postseason that begins Friday at McKethan Stadium.

"Anytime you win the regular season (championship) in this league and then end up winning the tournament, you've got to feel good about it. It has been a grind. Every year presents different challenges. Last year, it was the youth and how it would respond. This year, ranked No. 1 to start the year with those expectations has been a grind, but (the players) have handled it great."

The expectations didn't allow for much of a hiccup. There was constant pressure and expectations on the team that come along with preseason rankings. It didn't matter if it was a weekend conference game or a midweek game against an instate team, Florida saw every opponent's best shot at taking down the preseason No. 1 team.

"It has been a grind, but with all the expectations, it has been more mentally than physically," Florida catcher Mike Zunino said. "We just took it one game at a time and tried to stay healthy. Now we've got to keep grinding it out."

With the tedious season behind them, Florida presses into the NCAA Regionals as the No. 2 overall seed, behind only Virginia. The Gators reward for the postseason really wasn't much of a reward at all. The committee sent Miami, the two-seed with the third highest RPI, to Gainesville as the No. 2 seed. The Hurricanes will play Jacksonville at noon on Friday in the first game of the Regionals.

Florida will take on Manhattan at 4 p.m. The Gators will send freshman right-hander Karsten Whitson (7-0, 2.53) against Jaspers sophomore John Soldinger (10-2, 3.24), who was named MAAC Pitcher of the Year.

"(Soldinger) can pitch," O'Sullivan said. "Anytime you win ten games, you're not just out there throwing fastballs. He is throwing two types of breaking balls, and he's very competitive. As their No. 1 starter, he has delivered pretty much every time out."

Soldinger has one start against an SEC team this season, throwing against Tennessee on March 11. He went eight innings, giving up nine hits and four runs while striking out two hitters. He also threw three wild pitches and hit a batter.

Manhattan is most well known in college baseball for what they did in 2006, when the Jaspers beat the No. 6 national seed Nebraska, ending the career of current New York Yankees right-hander Joba Chamberlain. The Jaspers went into that Regional as a No. 4 seed in Lincoln, and on Friday, they head into their first NCAA Tournament appearance since that upset.

Four seniors lead the Jaspers' offense. Matt McCann leads the Jaspers on offense, hitting .365 with six home runs and 38 RBI. Chad Salem (.340, 9, 50), Mark Onorati (.337, 6, 26) and Austin Sheffield (.311, 3, 29) have also chipped in to help the team hit .289 with 32 home runs.

"They've got a senior laden lineup, with four of their top five hitters in the lineup as seniors," O'Sullivan said. "They've got experience."

Manhattan and Florida have two common opponents this season in Winthrop and Tennessee. The Gators played five games against the two teams and won all of them. Manhattan also played five games against Winthrop and Tennessee, but the Jaspers lost all five of them, including a four-game sweep by the Volunteers.

In the four games against Tennessee, the Jaspers lineup hit .198 (23-116).

The loser of both Friday games will play at noon on Saturday, while Friday's winners will play on Saturday at 4 p.m.

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