Youth Serving Gators Well

When the Florida baseball team takes to the field in the NCAA Tournament Friday night, they do so knowing they owe a lot of their success to seven freshmen. The rookies have stepped into some of the most important roles on a baseball team and done so with remarkable productivity and consistency.

Five guys are, or have been, regular contributors to the Gator offense while three play important roles in the pitching staff. Brian Johnson performs in both groups. Let's take a look at how each of the guys has contributed to the Gators' SEC Championship and No. 3 NCAA seeding.

Austin Maddox ---- Maddox (.339, 15, 66) stepped right into the clean up spot and did more than just provide protection for last year's freshman slugger Preston Tucker. Maddox has seen playing time at first base and third base but has been the Gators' DH most of the season. His opposite field power is reminiscent of former Braves' great Dale Murphy. He leads the team in all the power categories.

Nolan Fontana ---- Playing a freshman at shortstop is not something most college coaches want to do, but Kevin O'Sullivan has no regrets about handing that job to Fontana. The incredible steady infielder has made just three errors all season. He's also been a consistent offensive player with a .277 batting average and .421 on base percentage. Fontana has 17 extra base hits and has stolen nine bases.

Mike Zunino ---- If starting a freshman at shortstop is crazy, playing one behind the plate is downright insane. Zunino took over as the Gators' catcher and has started 45 of the Gators 57 games. Zunino handles pitchers well and is very good at controlling opponents' running games. Additionally he improved as a hitter throughout the season (.273, 8, 35) giving the Gators a quality threat at the bottom of the batting order.

Kamm Washington ---- It's easy to forget this newcomer since he is out for the year with an injury. However, for the first half of the season Washington (.308, 1, 6, 8-9 SB) was a productive hitter and outfielder. He's likely to be a factor in the lineup for the next two seasons.

Brian Johnson ---- Johnson is simply the best combo player Florida has had since Brad Wilkerson. He's been solid as Florida's No. 3 starter (5-4, 4.41) and has the ability to be a No. 1 in the future. He didn't hit much early in the year, but has made 22 starts as the DH with excellent results (.385, 3, 14) in just 65 at bats. They call him "The Natural" for a reason even though he had not seen the movie as of two months ago.

Hudson Randall ---- There aren't many freshmen who look like a veteran from day one but Randall is that sort of guy. He has unusual poise on the mound and gives the Gators a chance to win every time he's out there. Randall (7-3, 2.90) has won his last five decisions including a 5-2 verdict over Vandy at the SEC Tournament and his ERA is the best among Florida starters.

Steven Rodriguez ---- "Paco" missed a good bit of the season with injuries, but he has done a great job out of the bullpen. Rodriguez (1-0, 2.05) got the win in the SEC Title clincher over South Carolina. He also saved Randall's win over Vandy at the SEC Tournament.


Kevin O'Sullivan had this to say about his rookies:

"The level of consistency and to be able to play at a high level in the SEC has been a great accomplishment for all of them. But, like I say this is the second season. Everything you've done to this point really doesn't mean a whole lot. We've got to play well and there's not a whole lot of margin for error, but so far so good. They've hung in there and continued to get better.

On where the freshmen proved they belong:

"I think the Miami series at the beginning of the year was big for their confidence. I think going on the road to Tennessee and Kentucky (was important). We really haven't played very well on the road the first two years and that kind of opened their eyes and they started believing in themselves a little bit more."


CF Matt den Dekker on the freshmen and their first NCAA:

"I think in the last couple of weeks they've gotten a feel for what the post-season is gonna be like. South Carolina was an atmosphere that we have had and they played well. In Hoover that was the same type of atmosphere like playoff games. I think they've had that experience and they know what to expect. They're going to be excited and ready to go."

The Gators play Bethune Cookman Friday night at seven in their first NCAA game and will then face either FAU or Oregon State.

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