Florida will lead off with SEC Pitcher of the Year Logan Shore. The junior righty is 12-0 on the year and still running on a 17 game win streak that is the longest in Gator history. A couple of those wins in the streak came in the College World Series a year ago and he understands now just what to expect.
“I think it helps a lot,” Shore said of being there a year ago. “I just remember the first pitch against Miami and I was extremely nervous. It was the biggest stage I ever pitched on and the biggest game of our careers thus far. Now going back a second time and we’ve already played a bunch of games there, we know what the fans are like. We know what the atmosphere is like. We know how T.D. Ameritrade plays. I think we have a big advantage over the other teams.”
Sophomore shortstop Dalton Guthrie remembers a year ago when all of the players just wanted to soak things in.
“It was like a dream,” Guthrie said before he left Gainesville for Omaha earlier in the week. I’ve been to big league ballparks and stuff and you never expect to actually be walking out onto the field in a place like that. I remember going to the practice that day and we literally just laid in the grass and were like ‘wow, this is pretty cool.’ I think the coolest thing about it is just the first couple days and just taking it all in, the opening ceremony is the thing I remember most about last year.
“I know before our first game, we were all sitting in the grass just lying there watching the screen. We were pretending to do some stretches but we were just chilling in the outfield. It was pretty cool. It’s the little things like that that we remember from last year. That’s why you play the game; so you can do stuff like that.”
“It’s just a really cool experience. I hope the guys that haven’t been there really get to experience that, really get to live it up for what it is because you don’t get many shots to do stuff like this.”
Junior All-American first baseman Pete Alonso understands how special it is, but also now understands how to better approach everything associated with the CWS.
They do it up right in Omaha and the pageantry and all the time spent really makes memories for the young men that get a chance to participate. Not many get that chance and few get to do it more than once. The new T.D. Ameritrade Stadium and all that surrounds it is just plain special.
“It’s incredible to go back,” Alonso said. “I mean that’s an extremely, extremely special place. That’s been the goal all year. As a kid growing up you just dream to go there once. To go there twice is kind of unthinkable in the grand scheme of things. It’s an absolutely incredible opportunity and we’re going to make the most of it.”
For Guthrie, it is all he knows as a Gator. A freshman a year ago, he was the starting second baseman and played a big role in the Gators going as far as they did. In the Super Regional series with Florida State, the Gators lost game one which was a wake-up call for something that they knew they had to go earn.
“It’d be nice if every season ended like this,” he said with a laugh. “I think we almost got spoiled last year, just come in and sweep through and get to Omaha. It was kind of a wake-up call when FSU beat us in that first game and we had to earn it, so it’s kind of a new experience. It almost came easy to us last year. We definitely had to earn what we got, so it’s nice to feel that you really earned it because your back was up against the wall. It’s a different feeling and I like it.”
A team that was extremely happy to just get to Omaha a year ago is now a team that has been on a different mission. The Gators started the season as the top ranked team in the country. They finished the regular season as the overall top seed in the NCAA Tournament. The target has been on their back all year long, but they have set their sights on winning it all.
“I don’t think we didn’t take it seriously last year, but we obviously know that we came and we prepared this year to have a chance to win a national title; not just make it to Omaha,” Guthrie said. “I think our eyes are set on that and we’re gonna play excited and we’re gonna try everything we can to win it.”
Because of all the experience from a year ago, this team knows that they need to just let the games come to them and take care of business in order to fulfill their ultimate goal.
"It's not really pressure,” Alonso said. “We just go out there and have fun and give our best effort. You can't let anything else get in the way. You've got to go all out. You've got to leave your heart and soul on the field and give all you've got every single pitch. The crowd is going to do whatever. You can't really control what people say or what people do. Like outside the field, you've just got to focus on what you need to do and the task at hand and that's focus on each pitch and win each pitch, which lets you stay locked in and focused on winning the game."
SEC’s representative in Omaha…
The SEC had seven teams make the 64-team NCAA Tournament field and the Gators are the lone SEC squad of the eight teams playing in Omaha starting this weekend. A conference that dominated the standings for most of the year had a rough time in the Super regionals this past weekend.
Regardless, O’Sullivan believes SEC play has really battle tested his team for what they are about to experience at the CWS.
"I know people say the SEC's maybe not as good, I don't agree with that one bit,” O’Sullivan said. “I think the SEC is the most difficult league in the country. There are other good leagues out there and there are really good players, but the places that we play and the atmospheres (we play in), it's not easy. And that's the separator.
“There's really no league in the country that has as many difficult atmospheres to play in, and when you're dealing with 18, 19, 20, 21-year-olds and there's 9, 10, 11,000 people, it's different. Your team doesn't always play as clean as you want them to with those atmospheres, and no other league can provide that. That, for me, is probably the biggest separator with the SEC and the other leagues."