Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan often answers questions with a clever grin.
But when UF’s ninth-year manager was asked about expectations, pressure and rankings for the nation’s No. 1 college baseball team, O’Sullivan said sternly, yet confidently: “We expect to get to Omaha. That’s the standard. There’s Omaha teams and there’s Omaha programs, and I think we’re getting to the point where the expectation is that [we’re an Omaha program], and that’s awesome.”
A year after a third-place finish in the 2015 College World Series, Florida is unanimously the top-ranked team in all five preseason polls, with some industry experts saying this is O’Sullivan’s most talented team ever.
After four fruitless trips to Omaha in the past six years, Florida’s manager certainly hopes so.
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Despite losing several key contributors (shortstop Richie Martin, a first round pick by the Oakland Athletics, outfield Harrison Bader and closer Taylor Lewis) from a team that rolled to a 52-18 record, UF returns a seasoned roster and added the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class.
Once again, the Gators tout the country’s top armada of arms, returning their entire weekend rotation that includes two preseason All-Americans in juniors Logan Shore and A.J. Puk.
Puk, a 6-7 southpaw who routinely hits 97 mph on the radar gun, is a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, and Shore (11-6, 2.72 ERA) and sophomore Alex Faedo (6-1, 3.23 ERA) also are potential future first-round picks. Florida’s lineup is loaded with firepower, speed and depth, headlined by sophomore catcher JJ Schwarz and junior outfielder Buddy Reed (team-high 86 hits, 18 stolen bases).
Last season, Schwarz earned All-American honors and was named the Louisville Slugger Co-Freshman of the Year after batting .332 with 37 extra-base hits and 73 RBI.
“When we got ranked in the first poll, we were like, ‘Wow. That’s cool.’ It doesn’t scare us,” junior outfield Ryan Larson said.
“But it really doesn’t mean anything other than we have talent and right now we’re the best team on paper. But you still got to play the games.”
Florida, which opens the season Feb. 19 against Florida Gulf Coast, faces another tough schedule (21 games against preseason ranked teams), and questions remain as to how bullpen roles will shake out and whether top freshman prospects Jonathan India (a Plantation American Heritage product), Deacon Liput (a potential starter at second base) and pitcher Brady Singer (a second-round pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015) are ready for prime time.
Still, they’re not shying away from expectations, as an attitude of “Omaha or bust” has openly been established in Gainesville.
“We’re good,” Larson said. “We think we’re good, and that’s all that matters to us right now.”
University of Florida
Coach: Kevin O’Sullivan; Last year: 52-18 (Third-place finish at the College World Series); Top Players: P A.J. Puk (jr.), OF Buddy Reed (jr.), C JJ Schwarz (so.), P Logan Shore (jr.); Noteworthy: Schwarz, a Palm Beach Gardens native, set a UF freshman record with 18 homers in 2015; The Gators led the SEC with nine selections in the 2015 MLB Draft; Florida swept the NCAA Regional and Super Regional last season.
February: 19-21 vs. Florida Gulf Coast; 23-24 vs. Eastern Michigan; 26-28 at Miami.
March: 1 at UCF; 2 vs. UCF; 4-6 vs. Dartmouth; 8 at UNF; 9 vs. UNF; 11-13 vs. Harvard; 15 vs. Florida State; 18-20 vs. Missouri; 22 vs. Florida Atlantic; 25-27 at Kentucky; 29 vs. Florida State (Jacksonville).
April: 1-3 vs. Texas A&M; 5 vs. Jacksonville; 8-10 vs. Mississippi State; 12 at Florida State; 14-16 at Arkansas; 19 vs. Jacksonville; 21-23 vs. Georgia; April 29-May 1 at South Carolina.
May: 3 vs. Bethune-Cookman; 6-8 at Tennessee; 10 vs. UCF; 13-15 vs. Vanderbilt; 19-21 at LSU.