Youth Surprises as No. 1 Florida Heads to USC

The returning veterans for No. 1 Florida earned the team its preseason ranking. The youth is helping the team stay at the top. With center fielder Tyler Thompson out for the season after tearing his ACL against Vanderbilt, the Gators will feature four freshmen in the lineup this weekend at No. 8 South Carolina (16-4/0-3 SEC) and for the rest of the season.

The Florida lineup was scary enough coming into the season. Catcher Mike Zunino is expected to be selected in the top five picks of this summer's MLB Draft. Right fielder Preston Tucker already holds the school career RBI record. Designated hitter Brian Johnson could be drafted in the first round as a pitcher or a hitter. Shortstop Nolan Fontana could be taken in the top three rounds, possibly even earlier.

Florida (20-1/3-0 SEC) knew what it would get out of those veterans this spring. What head coach Kevin O'Sullivan didn't expect is what his freshmen are producing.

"What people forget is it's as young of an offense as we've had here," O'Sullivan said. "I didn't expect to be starting four freshmen in the lineup. Everybody talks about the freshmen class two years ago, and rightfully so since they're juniors, but we started (Austin) Maddox, Johnson, Fontana and Zunino, and everybody thought about how young that teams was. This team is just as young."

This year's team has the same number of freshmen starters. They just go overlooked because of the high level talent in the junior and senior class on the team.

The freshmen have combined to produce 31.7% of the at-bats so far this season and 27% of the RBI.

Whether it's Taylor Gushue making an immediate impact in the middle of the lineup with five home runs and 17 RBI (both third on the team) or Casey Turgeon and Josh Tobias solidifying the infield, the Gators have got an immediate impact.

"I didn't anticipate Taylor Gushue starting at first base," O'Sullivan said. "I did think that Casey was going to be a really good infielder, but he missed the fall and has come back doing what he's doing. We knew Josh was going to be a really good player, but he has been making some plays defensively that I'm not quite sure I anticipated."

Now it's time for the fourth freshman to step up. After Tyler Thompson tore his ACL last Friday, Justin Shafer has been pushed into the starting lineup. There aren't many other options in the outfield for the Gators, and Shafer will find himself in the lineup every day.

"Shafer was a player we knew was going to be really good, but he's better than I even thought he was going to be," O'Sullivan said.

The youth will be thrown into a tough environment this weekend. The good news for O'Sullivan is that they've already proven they can produce on the road. The four freshman combined to go 8-28 (.284) with two home runs, five RBI and five runs scores when Florida swept the series at Miami in early March.

They played in front of crowds of 5,000 people in Coral Gables. South Carolina will pack in 7,000-8,000 for each game this weekend. It's hard to simulate that for young players, but they were successful in a road test at Miami.

"It helps out a lot," Zunino said of the freshmen having road experience. "Every game and every little experience they can get helps them out a lot. That's really the only way to get better. They're doing a good job of handling the pressure of playing for this team."

Zunino and the other seven juniors on the Florida roster played in Columbia as freshman in 2010 with a lot more on the line. The Gators made the trip for the final three-game series of conference play with the two teams tied atop the SEC standings. The young Florida team won the first two games of the series to clinch the conference title.

"We won there with a lot of young guys my sophomore year," said Tucker, who was a sophomore that season. "They're one of the top teams in the nation playing at home."

"It's a great place to play," Zunino added. "It's a great atmosphere and a great road trip. We're just ready to go after it and have a good weekend."

Since Florida won the second game of the series in 2010 to clinch the SEC title, South Carolina has beaten Florida in five of the last six matchups. The final two last season let the Gamecocks leave Omaha with the national championship. Tucker said that has given the team a chip on its shoulder going into this series.

"It left a sour taste in our mouth," Tucker said. "A lot of the guys still remember the game like it was yesterday—I know I do. It's going to be even tougher playing up there."

The series will get started at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday and be televised on ESPNU. That game will see Florida send junior right-hander Hudson Randall (3-0, 3.45) to the mound against South Carolina senior left-hander Michael Roth (2-0, 1.26).

Friday at 7 p.m. will be Florida junior left-hander Brian Johnson (3-0, 3.16) against South Carolina junior right-hander Matt Price (2-1, 3.71).

The series finale at 1 p.m. Saturday will be Florida sophomore right-hander Jonathon Crawford (2-1, 4.43) against South Carolina junior right-hander Colby Holmes (3-0, 1.88).

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