Steven Branscombe / USA TODAY Sports

Is this the year for Gators Baseball?

The first pitch of the 2017 season will be thrown out today in Gainesville as the most accomplished baseball coach in University of Florida history, Kevin O’Sullivan is on the cusp of securing his 400th victory.

O’Sullivan, beginning his 10th season at the helm of the Gators program has impressively raced to 396 wins while competing in the mighty SEC East, the most challenging division in college baseball.

And it’s been one enjoyable ride.

The East has been a beast since Sully took the reins at Florida in 2008.

Four SEC East schools (Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Florida) have played in the CWS Championship Series during O’Sullivan’s first eight years in Gainesville.

The Gamecocks (2-1) and Commodores (1-1) have played for the championship multiple times.

The Eastern Division is top-heavy with national powerhouse programs at Florida, South Carolina and Vanderbilt and usually one or two teams within the division that exceed pre-season projections. The schedule makes every weekend like walking barefoot through a land mine field when you add a three-game series with LSU and two other Western Division opponents. And don’t forget those grueling road trips- where you hope the budget affords you the opportunity to fly rather than jump on a bus. Is it any wonder as to why the champion is so often determined on the last weekend of play?

O’Sullivan annually faces his longtime friend Tim Corbin, a three-time CWS participant who sports an overall record of 610-290 (.678) and LSU’s Paul Mainieri (1,324-674-8, .660) who has also won a national championship. The Gators also faced two-time national champion Ray Tanner (738-316, .700) led his South Carolina Gamecocks to several NCAA post-season appearances until he resigned to take the USC AD position after the 2012 season.

Mainieri, Tanner, and Corbin all currently rank among the top seven in winning percentage in SEC history.

Meanwhile, the Florida baseball program has simply gotten stronger. Florida’s regular season SEC record during the O’Sullivan Era is a conference best 171-98 (.636).

O’Sullivan’s .677 winning percentage is not only the best at Florida, but among the best in Southeastern Conference history.

He was exactly what then Athletic Director Jeremy Foley was looking for in a head coach- an energetic, dynamic recruiter who has established strong relationships with players and their families as they weigh MLB money versus the opportunities provided to advance and flourish in college. A head coach that has surrounded himself with quality assistants Craig Bell and Brad Weitzel, who help identify and develop the talent. It’s rare to see that continuity. Furthermore, there are usually multiple Florida players selected in the first two rounds of the MLB Draft.  

Over the past 30 years, the Gators produced a few outstanding teams and many terrific college baseball players under the direction of former coaches Jack Rhine, Joe Arnold, Andy Lopez, and Pat McMahon,

Still, the Florida program lacked consistency.

It lacked the consistency to play host in the NCAA Regionals. It lacked the consistency to advance and host an NCAA Super Regional series. And it lacked the consistency to advance to Omaha for the College World Series. 

It’s hard to believe, but in a state loaded with superb baseball talent, the Gators only scratched the surface on occasion. By no means was the program bad, it was just inconsistent. Too often Florida was mentioned in the conversation after Florida State and Miami.

That all changed with the hire of Kevin O’Sullivan.

Four SEC Eastern Division championships. Three Southeastern Conference championships. Nine consecutive NCAA appearances. Five College World Series appearances.

And finally the Florida program has become the consistent national power that Gators fans have wanted for years.

A College World Series national championship is the elephant in the room that will have Gators fans talking about over the next few months. It’s that much-desired additional page for O’Sullivan’s impressive resume.

Is this the year?

We begin the long journey toward answering that question when 6’5 junior Alex Faedo throws out the first pitch around 6:36 tonight. Just enjoy the ride.  

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