Gators ready for season opening weekend

There has been much anticipation for this opening weekend for the No. 1 Florida Gator baseball program. A team that finished as runner-up for the national title has their scope set on finishing the deal in 2016. It all starts Friday night at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville.

Florida will host Florida Gulf Coast in a three game series with Logan Shore taking the mound for the Gators and another go around as the Gators’ ace and number one weekend starter.

The Eagles come with a couple of big time players in infielder Jake Noll and Nick Rivera. Noll is a junior and has a career .348 batting average with three home runs and 70 RBI. Rivera, in his senior season has a career .322 average with 24 home runs and a whopping 152 RBI. Rivera has been tabbed with All-American honors while Noll was recently named a Top 100 prospect by D1 Baseball.

“I think they’re older,” Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said of this FGCU squad. “I think their two best hitters are Noll and Rivera. They will start a redshirt senior in (Garrett) Anderson(JR)  Friday night and on Saturday their most experienced bullpen guy is going to start and an older guy in (Mario) Leon will start on Sunday.

“I expect them to be well coached and play well and it should be a good test for us.”

O’Sullivan says there is no way to take a team from The Sunshine State lightly. They will have plenty of talent.

“We can’t overlook (anyone) because we haven’t played anybody,” the head coach said. “I think they are excited to get on the field and play somebody new. Our guys are smart enough to know anyone we play is going to be talented enough to beat us. If you look at our regional last year, we didn’t play anyone outside of the state (of Florida) until Omaha and our first round in Omaha was against Miami. We’re not going to overlook anybody.”

The players are ready to matchup against anyone but themselves at this point. Baseball is basically a year around sport in terms of practicing on their own and it will be good to face a new opponent. There is also some new blood on the roster that is eager to get in some action as Gators.

“I think our older players have kind of prepped them a little bit,” O’Sullivan said. “Regardless of what you tell them they will be anxious, but as soon as they get their first at bat, they’ll be fine.

“I do like our team, I do like where we’re at. I think the chemistry is really good. I think we’re in a good place, we’re healthy. It is a long season, but I do like where we’re at. We’ll play hard, work hard, and see where it goes.

“This time of year you want to play someone new. It’s been a good preseason, but it’s been a long time since we played someone else, so I know they’re excited.”

 Sophomore Schwarz and the lime light…

Sophomore slugger and catcher J.J. Schwarz drew national recognition as a freshman in 2015 and that has carried over to this year. O’Sullivan says he isn’t worried at all about how Schwarz is attacking the season.

“He’s probably been our best hitter in preseason,” Florida’s skipper said. “I would expect him to handle it fine. He’s been around the game his whole life, his dad is with the Marlins. He gets it. He’s even keeled and handles the expectations the best that he possibly can.

“He is a great teammate which I think helps him and takes the pressure off of him. I would expect him to handle it.”

O’Sullivan isn’t going to waste Schwarz’s talent at catcher just because of his hitting prowess and the talent at the position that Mike Rivera possesses as well.

“We are going to go back and forth, with J.J. and Rivera like we did last year,” said O’Sullivan. “Last year, there was really only one stretch where he struggled offensively, I think it was the week after he hit the seven homers, because I think he tried to duplicate. I think he tried to do more than he needed to. I thought he handled it great the entire year. What he did as a freshman was quite remarkable, especially against the competition he faced.

Movement in the bullpen…

Gone to Major League Baseball from the bullpen are regulars Taylor Lewis and Danny Young. O’Sullivan, who has a history of great pitching coaching, will use several arms to figure out just where they want to go. Junior right-handers Shaun Anderson and Frank Rubio, junior left hander Kirby Snead, the return of sophomore left hander Scott Moss and heralded freshman Brady Singer are among the names you will hear filling middle relief and closing out games.

“I have a plan, but I think when you go into a season the older guys will pitch in the closer games and the younger guys you want to get them in there in non-pressure situations,” O’Sullivan said. “That’s part of the coaching piece where you want to put your players in position to be successful. I need to figure out how to get Moss in there, he hasn’t pitched in two years.”

“We’ll use the first three or four weeks to see where we’re at and hopefully have a better idea about our bullpen before we get into SEC play.”

Confident in the infield…

The Gators will be without star shortstop Richie Martin and third baseman Josh Tobias, two mainstays of the best defense in college baseball a year ago. But, two freshmen have arrived in Deacon Liput and Jonathan India that should step in and perform well according to the Gators’ head coach.  The move of sophomore Dalton Guthrie from second to short stop has been a smooth one as well.

“I feel very confident,” O’Sullivan said of the expected play of his infield. “I feel like we’ve made a lot of strides since the fall. We’ve spent a lot of time in practice specifically on infield defense. I think Dalton is going to have a terrific year. Obviously he has big shoes to fill with Richie leaving. India is very talented though it is going to be very hard to do what Tobias did and I feel very good about Liput at second.

“I feel good about their ability to play defense. There will be some bumps in the road, but where we’re at now, how we’ve practiced, and how we’ve handled the ball, I do feel good about it.”

The player coach…

Senior catcher Mike Fahrman doesn’t get on the field much because of the star power of Schwarz and Rivera. He still has a special place with this team as far as O’Sullivan is concerned.

“(He’s a) great teammate, the kids love him,” O’Sullivan said of Fahrman. “He is one of the two seniors we have on the team. I just love being around him. He’s what this program is all about. He’s a very good student, he’s a good leader. The kids look up to him. Obviously, it’s easy to look up to guys that play all the time or pitch all the time, but to have that type of respect from his teammates and he doesn’t play maybe as much as some of the other guys I think speaks volumes about what he is all about.

Having been around a while as a senior Fahrman is like another coach in the dugout and sets a great example. He’s constantly pushing the other guys.

“It helps a lot and a lot of it goes on behind the scenes and stuff I don’t even see,” he said. “You can tell what kind of a teammate a kid is by where he is standing in the dugout. Mike is always at this end of the dugout with us and always trying to help. As you’ll see when kids aren’t playing as much and kind of disgruntled, they migrate to the other side of the dugout. He’s always into every pitch and trying to help the other guys. It’s been very helpful for all the players. He’s done a terrific job.

Difficult schedule…

As the season is upon us, the Gators have to look forward to a grueling overall schedule. It starts Friday, but will be a grind both before the conference season starts and certainly during the SEC tilt.

“Every year I look at our schedule and it isn’t going to be easy,” O’Sullivan said. “This year in particular I think the East is very strong. South Carolina is South Carolina, Vanderbilt is Vanderbilt, Kentucky has three starters back, and Missouri has a very good club. Our first three weekends are Missouri, Texas A&M, and Kentucky, and we’re going to figure out very early where we’re at.

“I do like our team, and at the end of the year I think it will be the number one strength of schedule. We will have enough tests and battles along the way to keep us in check.”

 

No pressure…

O’Sullivan has embraced the accolades his team has received. They are number one in every college baseball poll to start the season and he understands he has a talented squad that has to live up to some lofty expectations.

“This is fun,” he said. “Very rarely do you go into a season with everybody saying so many good things about your team. I would hope every year we’re being thought of as a team that has a chance to get to Omaha and win a national championship.

“It’s not a curse. There’s been a lot of hard work that has gone into this. Teams in the past, former players, recruiting, hard work on the field, guys doing what they are supposed to do in the training room and we’re healthy. There is a lot of work that has gone into this.

“The only thing I ask of our players is to play hard. If they play hard, then we have a chance to be really, really good. If we can keep all the external stuff out, the draft and those kind of things, for three hours, three or four times a week, then I think we have a chance to be very good.”

 

 

 

 

 

 


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