BASEBALL: The Rise Of The Mighty Gators

The Florida baseball season began with a whimper after a 5-4 extra inning loss to lowly Charleston Southern on a frigid February evening in Gainesville. Those days are long since removed. This squad has taken its lumps and learned from them. They have gained confidence and moved forward and Sunday's 7-4 victory over Nebraska at the College World Series in Omaha has the 2005 Gators on the cusp of the greatest season in school history.

Florida's season opening loss to Charleston Southern was an aberration. The Bucs outhit the Gators, 11-7 and Florida committed six errors as they bumbled their way to a most forgettable game. It was only the 19th season opening loss at home in school history.

The Gators took the final two games in the series from Charleston Southern (24-29) and a mid-week contest against Florida A&M (18-33). None of these were as scripted though. In all, Florida committed 14 errors (3.5 per game) against teams that would finish with a combined record of 42-62. The errors in those four games accounts for roughly 15% of their season total. Florida has committed 1.38 errors per game since those first four games.

Part one of the four tier learning curve had been completed. It was an inauspicious start for Florida. Despite averaging sixteen runs in those last two games, the Florida players knew that they had to improve, and fast. Three days later, the Gators would begin part two when the hated Miami Hurricanes would invade Gainesville for the three game series.

Part Two

The significance of the Miami series wasn't at all lost on even the casual observer of Florida baseball. There had been plenty of recent post season history between these two clubs with the Gators on the wrong end of the boxscore.

"These guys have ruined our season for three years now," center fielder Jeff Corsaletti would say before the series in February. "I can't stand those guys. We have something to prove. We just have to go out, play our game and take it to them."

Three years ago, the Hurricanes rallied for three runs in the ninth to beat the Gators, 7-6, in Gainesville. To make matters worse, Jim Burt hit the game winning double and Burt's father, former New York Giant Jim Burt, exchanged unpleasantries with some Florida fans in the stands at McKethan Stadium.

One year earlier, Miami eliminated Florida in the Coral Gables Regionals.

The 'Canes knocked Florida out of the Coral Gables Super Regional in the minimum amount of games necessary last June. Corsaletti had been there for each of those three season ending losses. He and his Florida teammates were ready to put an end to the ghosts of the past.

"These guys have ruined our season for three years now. I can't stand those guys. We have something to prove. We just have to go out, play our game and take it to them."

Center Fielder
Jeff Corsaletti

The first game of the series appeared to be Déjà vu. Starter Alan Horne and reliever Connor Falkenbach had combined to strike out ten Hurricanes. Despite giving up thirteen hits, the Gators took a 7-6 lead into the ninth. Miami scratched out three runs on three hits off Falkenbach for the 9-7 win.

"We're [pitching Coach Ross Jones and I] still in the process of getting to know each other," frustrated starter Alan Horne stated afterwards. "He's learning about the things that I can do and we're still going through tendencies. It wasn't my best stuff out there tonight. We usually don't give up that many runs."

Several Florida players were visibly upset in the dugout after the loss. As angry as they were at themselves, there is no doubt that they used the loss as motivation.

Florida pitchers Bryan Ball, Steven Porter, and Darren O'Day were absolutely spectacular in game two. They combined to hold the Hurricanes to one run in a game that went eleven innings.

The 'Canes used six pitchers who had also held the Gators to a single run through ten innings. Adam Davis drew a leadoff walk in the eleventh. He moved to second on Gavin Dickey's single to left. Davis moved to third on Corsaletti's ground ball to first. A pitching change and three pitches later, Brian Jeroloman hit a lazy fly ball to left fielder John Jay, who surprisingly dropped the ball allowing Davis to score the game winning run as the celebration erupted on the field and in the stands. It was especially sweet considering that Jay's two-run triple one night earlier had helped defeat the Gators.

The inspired Florida squad jumped all over the 'Canes for six runs in the first inning and five runs in the fourth inning of game three. The Gators jumped out to a 12-2 lead. Miami stormed back to close the gap to 13-11, but it was Florida which put the last run on the board.

"Beating them (Miami) is a huge boost for us," right fielder Brian LeClerc said. "We played them tough last season and came up short. They are an outstanding team. But, we wanted to send a message that the University of Florida can play good baseball too, and we did that."

The confidence gained by the Florida team was obvious. The Gators went on to win 11 of their next 13 games, and finally gained some much deserved national attention.

The University of Florida has an overall record of 1996-1286-24 (.604). The most successful teams in Florida history were the 1991 (51-21) and 1996 (50-18) squads, who both finished 2-2 in the CWS.

Part Three

The third tier that the '05 Gators needed to conquer was against the Beasts of the SEC East, South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been the hottest team in college baseball over the past three years, with appearances to the College World Series in each of those years. Furthermore, Carolina has had the best record in the conference since 1999.

Just as they did against the Hurricanes, Florida dropped the opener to South Carolina. They left nine men on base in the 2-0 loss. They watched their SEC record drop to 1-3. And just as they did against Miami, several Florida players were upset with themselves, including unofficial team spokesman Jeff Corsaletti.

"We didn't execute," a perturbed Corsaletti said afterwards.

"He's a senior," said Corsaletti of South Carolina pitcher Aaron Rawl. "He's been one of their top pitchers for the past three years. Anytime that you can locate three pitches like that, you're going to be successful in this league. He did the job, but we had chances. We have got to get that run in. We practice that everyday. The whole team needs to step it up."

Step it up they did.

Boss, Falkenbach, Porter, and O'Day cooled the Gamecocks bats on Saturday, holding a team that entered hitting .316 to just three runs. The Gators won the mental battle during the three and a half hour rain delay too. Florida scored seven runs on seven hits watching Carolina pitchers walk eight Florida batters.

The rubber match was all Florida. Alan Horne and Connor Falkenbach held the Gamecocks to just one run, while the five different Florida players collected multiple hits.

"This is huge," left fielder Gavin Dickey said. "You know it's a two game swing. We could either be 2-4 or 3-3, so it was a huge win today." The victory also gave the Gators a 2-0 series mark against a pair of teams (Miami and South Carolina) that played in the 2004 College World Series. In both of those series, Florida has had to battle back after dropping the Friday night contest.

"It's hard losing on Friday night," Falkenbach said. "We want to win on Friday night and get a good start for the weekend. We wanted to put Friday night behind us and come out and win Saturday and Sunday because we know that we'll win the series if we do that." Upon defeating Carolina, the Gators won 11 of their next 14 games.

Part Four

The fourth tier saw Florida drop a series to a Tennessee team that also advanced to the College World Series. The Gators dropped two of three to Tennessee. The Vols were in the peak of their offensive juggernaut. Other than Adam Davis' ten RBI record setting performance on Saturday, Florida could muster little offense. They certainly couldn't match the Vols offensively.

"This is huge. You know it's a two game swing. We could either be 2-4 or 3-3, so it was a huge win today."

Left Fielder
Gavin Dickey

In fact, Florida was in the earliest stages of a nine game slump. The Gators dropped seven of those nine games, including a pair of mid-week contests to an average-at-best South Florida team.

Most everybody was questioning the ability of Florida to secure an NCAA bid, let alone win the Southeastern Conference. When Florida State Coach Mike Martin said after his Seminoles defeated the Gators 9-4 in Gainesville that Florida was a top seed and that they (FSU) would probably see them again (in the NCAA Tourney), many merely chalked it up to Martin being a nice guy. While Martin is a quality person, he was totally serious. The Indian coach has been around the game. He knew exactly what Florida had, and what they were going through.

Florida's players grew tired of being asked the usual questions because it was a slump that teams typically go through and just like so many championship quality teams before them, they had no answers. The Gators emerged from the slump taking two of three from Mississippi State. At least that's what we all suppose. They followed that up by winning the SEC on the road in Music City, and oh, what sweet music it was, as they swept Vanderbilt.

Florida has won 15 of their last 18 games since losing to South Florida 11-5 in Tampa.

The University of Florida has an overall record of 1996-1286-24 (.604). The most successful teams in Florida history were the 1991 (51-21) and 1996 (50-18) squads, who both finished 2-2 in the College World Series.

The Gators could go the distance and potentially make the 2006 season opener a celebration of their 2005 success, as well as, booking victory number 2000 for the program.

As you can see, this young team grew up during the course the entire season. Coach Pat McMahon reinforced this to us daily, even through the latter stages of the SEC campaign. McMahon relates as well to these young players as any coach in the game today, demonstrated optimism and patience helped tremendously toward guiding this squad. The players will tell you that he is one of the best communicators in the game.

"We're [pitching Coach Ross Jones and Horne] still in the process of getting to know each other. He's learning about the things that I can do and we're still going through tendencies."

Pitcher Alan Horne
earlier in the year

Jeff Corsaletti, Tommy Boss, Connor Falkenbach, Adam Davis, Alan Horne, Matt LaPorta, Brandon McArthur, and Brian Jeroloman provided key elements of leadership in various ways for this club.

The 2005 Florida baseball team has not chosen to ignore the lessons learned this season. Through each of these tiers, they learned a little something about themselves and have turned negatives into positives, and positives into championships. Heck, if Urban Meyer hasn't pointed out these guys as championship role models, he will soon enough. This outstanding club, The Mighty Gators.

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