Even Kevin O’Sullivan felt it. Those teams, stacked with seven players that have reached the Major Leagues and more on the way, blew through the competition during those three seasons. It looked like it would never end.
The 2012 MLB Draft had other ideas.
Nine Florida players were chosen, setting the new high mark for the Florida program. One-by-one, the long list of All-Americans on the team signed with the professional teams that drafted them and began their career at the next level. Five players were taken in the first three rounds. Eight were taken in the first nine rounds.
Two starting position players returned for the 2013 season -- third baseman Josh Tobias and second baseman Casey Turgeon. The teams two best starting pitchers and almost all of the trusted relievers were gone.
The Gators also suffered their worst draft hit to a recruiting class in the year they could least afford it.
Florida’s top five signees, according to Perfect Game, all signed professionally. After losing Daniel Pigott and Preston Tucker from the team in the outfield, the Gators had a great class of outfielders with Lewis Brinson, Max White and Jesse Winker signed to play in Gainesville. All three had strong senior years in high school and were drafted higher than expected the year before, earning them money they couldn’t turn down from professional teams.
So the Gators went into the 2013 season without any returning stars and with a limited incoming freshmen class. Florida took its lumps, fighting just to make the NCAA Tournament. The Gators snuck in before being eliminated in two games.
With a stout freshman class in 2014, the Gators overachieved to win the SEC regular season title and earn the No. 2 overall national seed. It all happened ahead of schedule considering the team’s youth, and Florida went two-and-out of the NCAA Tournament.
After being a fixture in Omaha from 2010-12, O’Sullivan started to realize just how special it is when a team can get to the College World Series.
“It’s hard,” O’Sullivan said after Saturday’s 11-4 win over Florida State. “I don’t know, the first times we went from 2010-12, you don’t really realize how difficult it is to get there. You just get this momentum with really good teams. Then you miss in 2013, and then you miss in 2014, and you start thinking, ‘boy, this is not easy.’ Especially with last year’s team, I really liked last year’s team. We won the SEC championship and ran into a really good College of Charleston club the first night.”
That’s what made Saturday extra special for O’Sullivan. It’s why he took a little longer than normal on the field, celebrating with his players and family. His son, Finn, and his daughter, Payton, got to run around the field and enjoy the celebration. O’Sullivan even did a few interviews on the field after the game with Payton in his arms.
For most program, missing the two College World Series appearances bookended around two years of missing it wouldn’t be a big deal. That’s not how O’Sullivan is wired. The last two years of watching Omaha from his couch, when he could stomach it, made Saturday even more special.
“It’s not easy to get there,” O’Sullivan said. “This one I appreciate probably a little more. Not only do you have to be good, but things have to kind of go your way. Playing in the SEC and midweek games we play, it really is a grind. There are no gimmees on our schedule. I’m a little older now and have a little more perspective on how difficult it actually is to get to this point.”
It will be the first time all but two players on the Florida team have been to Omaha as a player. Reliever Bobby Poyner and third baseman Josh Tobias, both seniors, are the only players that traveled with Florida to the College World Series in 2012. That’s not hurting any of the optimism from the players that will make their first trip.
“There is no reason we can’t win five more games and win a national championship,” Florida left fielder Harrison Bader said.