By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Coming off back-to-back NCAA College World Series appearances and a runner-up national finish a year ago, it is only natural that high expectations surround the University of Florida baseball team as it begins fall practice for the 2012 season.
Last season, the Gators finished with a school-record 53 wins, shared the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship and captured the program’s first SEC Tournament title since 1991. Speaking this week at a media session, Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan said that his team has embraced the high expectations that come with national success.
“There will be a lot of expectations on this team this year, but it will be no different than it was last year,” O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got a ton of motivation. We didn’t win the World Series last year. We lost the final two games of the year, so we’ve got plenty of motivation and we’ve got some highly motivated players. We’re going to take a day-to-day approach, just try to get better and see what happens.”
Catcher Mike Zunino, the 2011 SEC Player of the Year, agreed, saying that losing to league foe South Carolina in the CWS Championship Series has made his team hungry for more in 2012.
“We just have the taste of going two-and-out in that last series and saw another team lift up that trophy, and we want to be there this year,” Zunino said. “Whenever you see a team, especially one from the SEC that you see quite a few times during the year, do that, you want to be able to do that also.”
On paper, the upcoming season looks bright for the Gators, who return 18 letterwinners from a year ago, including seven position starters and nine picture, to go along with incoming freshmen from its fourth consecutive top-10 recruiting class.
“It’s very rare that you get back your whole weekend rotation and get back as many key pieces from the previous year,” O’Sullivan said. “When you have a good year like we did last year, there is usually a lot of turnover. This is one of those years where we return a lot, so it’s reassuring. But, we’ve made the point from day one that we haven’t won a single game in 2012. Last year was a great year and we’re proud of what we did, but we still fell short of our ultimate goal.”
Despite just being in the team’s first week of practice, O’Sullivan says he has been encouraged by the leadership displayed by his team’s returning corps of veterans. That cast of experienced players has helped bridge a smooth gap between last year’s team and its group of highly decorated newcomers.
“The older guys have taken control of the program, so to speak,” O’Sullivan said. “They’ve been very welcoming with the new players. The new players have fit in perfectly well. We’re only two practices in, but as far as their work in the weight room and those types of things, it’s been going well.”
When O’Sullivan’s team takes to the field in February, it will face a daunting schedule that he hopes will help prepare his team for the rigors of the SEC.
The Gators open their 2012 slate with a three-game series in Gainesville against first-time opponent Cal State Fullerton. The schedule will also include a handful of meetings against perennial baseball powers and in-state rivals Florida State and Miami.
“I think you want to schedule as tough of a schedule as you can to try to figure out your team before SEC play,” O’Sullivan said. “To bring in a team like Cal State Fullerton to open up at home will only add excitement as the season gets closer. I think our players like to play a schedule like this and I think our fans deserve to see a schedule like this. It’s going to be challenging. We may not have the prettiest record at the end of the year, but I think we will be a better club because of it.”