How Sunday Happened

It was an unconventional move by Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan that ended up helping his team through Sunday's decisive Super Regional finale. His team's collective heart was broken on Saturday when Mississippi State won on a walk-off home run. O'Sullivan had to regain his team's confidence, or its season could have come to an end on Sunday.

The preparation for Sunday started soon after Saturday's game ended. After a loss, there isn't usually a team meeting. The players shower and leave soon after without having a team meeting to discuss the game. That happened on Saturday just like it did after every loss this season.

O'Sullivan didn't waste much time. Soon after the end of the game, he spent time on the phone with Florida basketball head coach Billy Donovan and Florida football offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Both shared their thoughts on how O'Sullivan should handle the situation, but the overall message was the same — the players were looking at O'Sullivan for guidance.

"For lack of a better term, I had my head in my rear (Saturday) night," O'Sullivan said. "I needed to pick myself up because the players were going to look to me. I've probably learned more about coaching in the last 24 hours than I have in the last four years."

The players went their separate ways, but it was tough to stop thinking about the loss. Some players were about to get dinner while others were spending time with family that was in town for the series.

Soon after 6 p.m., their phones received a text message. It was from the director of baseball operations. O'Sullivan was calling a team meeting at 7:30.

The meeting was called because of O'Sullivan's conversation with Donovan. The head basketball coach's message was simple. Maybe O'Sullivan needed to do something different because of the heartbreaking loss.

"We never meet as a team after a loss," O'Sullivan said. "Billy thought it'd be good to get together as a team last night, just to see me for ten minutes. That's what we did. You're rolling the dice because you're doing something that you don't really do all year."

It took most of the players by surprise. O'Sullivan never handled losses well, even having a reputation of losing sleep while watching the game over again to learn from mistakes. As the players showed up to the locker room, they weren't sure what was going on. O'Sullivan hadn't called players to the locker room for a meeting once in his four years as the head coach.

The players didn't know what would happen, but what they found was refreshing. O'Sullivan was honest, complimenting the team for hitting the ball hard, even if it was right at players on Saturday. Mississippi State snuck multiple weakly hit singles through the infield on Saturday, and O'Sullivan didn't want his pitchers to put too much pressure on themselves for Sunday.

"I had to think through the words and do the best job that I could," O'Sullivan said. "Everything was lined up for this team to lose (Sunday). Tough loss last night and we get left on our own field. It was all lined up. There was a lot of pressure to win."

It was a passionate speech from O'Sullivan. The meeting only lasted ten minutes, but his message was clear and pounded into the heads of his players. They had to be positive and realize that Saturday was only one game. If they went into Sunday's game tense, chances were that it wouldn't end well.

He wanted the players to rally around each other and come out with one more win.

"It was a hard, long night (Saturday) night," O'Sullivan said. "I wanted the players to come out focused with intensity, but I didn't want them to be tight. How do you do that? I don't think anybody's got the formula."

The team left an excited locker room after ten minutes. Their confidence left the stadium with them and returned Sunday morning.

"It definitely helped me," Zunino said about the Saturday night meeting. "To lose like that on your home field and be left on the field, you feel down and almost like you lost the series right there. To go (to the meeting) and know that coach is thinking the same way you are, for us all to be in there to squash everything, it helped out a lot."

The Gators jumped to an early 4-0 lead, but when Mississippi State came back to take a 6-4 lead, Florida remained positive. A three-run homer from Preston Tucker and solo homer from Daniel Pigott gave Florida an 8-6 lead as they were heading on the field for the ninth inning to clinch back-to-back College World Series berths for the first time in school history.

Instead of charging onto the field, they stayed in the dugout.

The team crowded around Mike Zunino on the bench for one last team meeting. They used Saturday's meeting to get in a position to end the game, and Zunino wanted to make sure the team was focused for the last three outs. O'Sullivan didn't call the meeting, and once he saw the players congregating in the dugout, he backed off to let them speak to each other.

"We pride ourselves on pitching and defense, so we just wanted to relax and play our game," said Zunino about what was talked about in the dugout. "We wanted to slow down and just not try to do too much on defense."

It worked, and the Gators celebrated with a dog pile on the mound at McKethan Stadium for the second straight year. It was a sign of how far O'Sullivan has brought this program in just four years, but it might not have come without some help from Donovan and Weis.

"Any coach in the UAA who doesn't take advantage of other coaches at Florida, they're probably missing the point," O'Sullivan said. "We all have things to learn and get better at. I certainly don't have all the answers. I will reach out when the time is right, and I want to thank those guys for reaching out because it helped."

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