Gators Return Familiar Faces

When the Florida team returned to the locker room for fall practice, it had a similar feel to last year. That happened because most of the faces from the 2011 season were still in the room. The addition of a talented recruiting class added some new players, but a majority of the returners are back for the 2012 season. That's when the expectations that will loom for the team this spring made sense.

"It's good to be able to look across the locker room and see the same basic guys," Florida catcher Mike Zunino said. "Obviously there are a few that aren't here that we wish were from last year, but to have the same core group of guys back helps us out a whole lot. It just makes you feel more comfortable."

The optimism starts on offense. Florida lost second baseman Josh Adams and center fielder Bryson Smith as the only two consistent contributors to the offense last season. Adams, who started all four years of his Florida career, leaves a hole that will be difficult to replace, but Smith had just 174 at-bats last season.

Senior outfielder Tyler Thompson, who hit .264 in 110 at-bats last season, will slide into the center field position. Second base will be a battle between Cody Dent and Josh Tobias.

The Florida offense returns players that accounted for 77% of the team's at-bats last season. The Gators return players who accounted for 86% of their home runs, 85% of their RBIs and 82% of their runs scored in the 2011 season.

"It's great knowing we're still going to have a lineup that can hit up and down," Florida right fielder Preston Tucker said. "With the juniors we have now and the guys coming back that produced throughout the year, I think we'll have just as good of a lineup as we did."

Florida ended the 2011 season with a .307 batting average, the second highest in the SEC and just behind Vanderbilt, whose offense was decimated by losses to the MLB Draft.

The returning pitchers also look the same. The Gators return the entire weekend rotation of Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson and Karsten Whitson, a trio that combined to record 27 wins last season, even though Johnson missed four starts at the end of the season with a concussion.

"It's very, very rare that you get back your whole weekend rotation and get back as many key pieces from the previous year," Florida head coach and pitching coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "Usually when you have a good year like we did last year, there's a lot of turnover on your roster. This is a year where we return a lot, so it's reassuring, but we haven't won a single game in 2012."

The Florida bullpen lost four arms taken in the top eleven rounds of the MLB Draft. Anthony DeSclafani, Nick Maronde, Alex Panteliodis and Tommy Toledo have all moved on to professional baseball. Those losses hurt the depth of the bullpen, but the Gators still return Greg Larson, Austin Maddox and Steven Rodriguez to anchor the late innings.

The Gators will return pitchers who threw 67% of innings last season and recorded 65% of the strikeouts.

With so much returning on the mound and at the plate, the Gators are the early favorite for the preseason No. 1 ranking after falling just short of the national championship last season. After being a top ranked team last season, the Gators have plenty of experience playing with the target on their back.

"We have a lot of expectations on this year, but it's no different than last year," O'Sullivan said. "We had a lot of expectations last year. We've got a ton of motivation (this year). We didn't win the World Series. We lost the final two games. We've got some highly motivated players."

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