Florida Upperclassmen Left Their Mark

OMAHA, Neb. – Don't let a disappointing end cloud the previous three years. The Gators were bounced from the College World Series after two sloppy games, but that shouldn't hinder the legacy of the junior and senior class that now departs. The two recruiting classes, the first two full classes that Kevin O'Sullivan brought to Florida, did exactly what he wanted—they put Florida back on the map.

O'Sullivan took over a program without much depth on the roster and in need of a rebuild. He made it happen faster than anyone expected.

A large part of that turnaround is because of the players that will graduate or move on to professional ball now that the 2012 season is over. They came in, took ownership in the program and contributed immediately.

There were five First Team Freshman All-Americans on the team in 2010. Hitters jumped in the mix and stole starting positions from the first day of that season, including Nolan Fontana, Austin Maddox and Mike Zunino. All three earned First Team All-American spots by Baseball America.

Brian Johnson earned the First Team utility spot while Hudson Randall was a First Team starting pitcher.

They produced immediately and turned all eyes in the college baseball world to what was happening in Gainesville. That was their freshmen seasons. It got better the next year when Florida played for a national title, and this year, the talent showed as Florida turned the MLB Draft into a commercial from the program in Gainesville.

"I've been proud of the way they've played and the way they've represented our program," O'Sullivan said. "They've set a standard that following teams will have to live up to."

The caliber of player at Florida has changed. Before this group of players came to Gainesville, Brad Wilkerson and Matt LaPorta were usually the first two players talked about as the best players in school history.

There's now an argument for Preston Tucker, and Mike Zunino's past two seasons have also been at an elite level that would rival the peak of any Florida player's career.

"They've been very successful," O'Sullivan said. "They've been great players, but more importantly, they've been a great representation of what we want in this program. I think they've done the right thing both on and off the field. They've worked awfully hard."

Outside of a national championship, O'Sullivan's first recruiting classes in Gainesville produced exactly what he wanted. They pushed Florida back into the national conversation of college baseball.

"I hope his first few recruiting classes did what he wanted," Zunino said. "We didn't leave with a national championship, but I hope we laid the groundwork for that to happen in years to come."

The track record of development by O'Sullivan is tough to ignore. Zunino was a 30th round selection out of high school, partly because of signability, but he came to Gainesville to refine his skills. The tools to become one of the top catchers in the country were already there, but O'Sullivan, a former catcher at Virginia, helped turn Zunino into the monster he was the past two years.

"It's night and day," Zunino said. "Coming in here out of high school, I was raw. They saw potential in me and got the best out of it. I bought in to what they were saying. They saw the potential in me. I'm glad somebody did. It worked out well with everything that happened."

When Brian Johnson came to Gainesville, O'Sullivan promised he would make him a first round selection. He taught Johnson a changeup that made him an effective starting pitcher for three years before the Boston Red Sox tabbed him with the final pick in the first round.

There are countless other examples, including Tucker and Fontana being undrafted out of high school. Tucker leaves Gainesville with a strong argument as best hitter in school history while an argument for Fontana could be made as best shortstop in school history.

The names on the back of the jerseys next year will be different at multiple positions and in multiple roles on the mound. It's the nature of having talent in college baseball. When a new freshman crop comes in, don't forget the track record of success O'Sullivan and the Florida staff has with development.

"There's a good mixture of talent and experience on this team," Tucker said. "Coach O'Sullivan is going to keep doing that. We see new faces in here every year with so much talent and guys that have been here to the World Series with that experience. The coaches won't expect anything less than a national title.

"Next year, it'll be the same thing. It'll be a lot of new faces and new guys in the rotation. There's going to be a lot of new talent here next year, and I'm excited to watch them play."

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