Veterans Helping Freshmen Overcome Nerves

OMAHA, Neb. - The Florida veterans knew what to expect while they walked in the gates of TD Ameritrade Park when the team arrived in Omaha on Wednesday. After earning back-to-back trips to the College World Series with teams perceived to be young, the Gators bring an experienced group to Omaha this year. The experience helps the veterans keep the freshmen from becoming overwhelmed by the stadium.

As the Florida team stepped foot into the stadium, Mike Zunino hung towards the back. He wanted to watch as the team investigated the park and observe the emotion. The wide eyes, even from some veterans, were tough to miss.

The veteran presence of the Gators has been widely publicized, but Florida will still start three freshmen—left fielder Justin Shafer, third baseman Josh Tobias and second baseman Casey Turgeon—in Saturday's College World Series opener against South Carolina.

Zunino's message to the freshmen was the same. He didn't want the young players to transfer into a business mindset until they were able to appreciate the emotion and excitement that comes from being in Omaha.

"I just told them to enjoy it," Zunino said. "That's all you can do. Once they say ‘play ball,' you can't get too wide eyed. You've got to focus."

The junior catcher acted calm and collected with the younger players around him, but inside, it was a different story.

"I could tell you I was when I saw it for the first time and seeing it for the second time, I still am," Zunino said with a laugh. "It's always fun to see the guys who haven't experienced it when they do experience it."

Once Florida started its one-hour practice session on Thursday, the freshmen looked like veterans. Tobias and Turgeon were out early to take ground balls and get adjusted to the playing surface. Shafer cemented himself in left field to work on reading the wind and tracking fly balls in the outfield.

"I was watching to see if I'd see any (wide eyes), but I didn't," Brian Johnson said. "Turgeon took a great (batting practice), one of his best I've seen him take. Tobias looked great hitting. I think they're all ready."

The benefit for Kevin O'Sullivan and his coaching staff is that the veterans are starting to take over. There isn't much the coaches need to say to make the freshmen understand the environment.

"Our players have taken leadership of the team. (Nolan) Fontana has done an unbelievable job with Turgeon. Some other guys have taken Tobias under their wing. (Daniel) Pigott has done a really, really good job with Shafer. That's when your program starts moving in the right direction, when players start taking ownership, coaching up the younger players and helping them when they struggle.

"Our players deserve all the credit with those younger guys."

CONFIDENCE IN MADDOX NOT SHAKEN: The past five outings for Austin Maddox haven't been pretty. The junior right-hander has allowed 11 hits and seven runs in six innings while striking out just three hitters. The scoreboard at McKethan Stadium showed his velocity at 90-91 mph in the Super Regionals after he was touching 96 mph to start the year.

He's getting hit harder than his start of the season that made him look like one of the most impressive closers in the country.

"Pitching is one of those things where you're always one outing away from being right back in the saddle," O'Sullivan said. "The last four outings may not have been his best, but there are plenty before that he can draw from. Nobody is going to remember the last four outings if he comes out here to Omaha and pitches like he's capable of doing."

O'Sullivan said he wasn't concerned about the velocity and that he thought it was "good," but Maddox could still use a positive outing to start the College World Series. The issue is that every appearance he has the rest of the season will come at an important point.

"The bottom line is the ball has been a little bit straighter and up," O'Sullivan said. "He hasn't quite commanded the second (pitches) as well as he has in the past. He made some adjustments this week. I feel good about him moving forward."

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