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May 29, 2014

Gators set to begin NCAA Tournament



Kevin O'Sullivan has coached some good teams at Florida, some of the best college baseball has seen in recent years. So when he says he feels as good about this team as he has any other entering the NCAA Tournament, it's worth listening.

"The players are not uptight, it's just ho-hum for us," O'Sullivan said Thursday after the Gators completed their final practice before a Friday night regional date with College of Charleston. "This doesn't happen by accident. You don't win 40 games with this schedule by accident."

He points to the number of close games - 16 one-run victories - against the toughest schedule in college baseball (.621 opponent win percentage) as a major factor in building the camaraderie and confidence this somewhat anonymous Gators team plays with.

Florida has also operated with an air of uncertainty while marching to a Southeastern Conference regular season title and a No. 2 overall national seed. That will not change this weekend.

SEC Freshman of the Year Logan Shore will start Friday night for the Gators. O'Sullivan said there was no doubt that would be the case once he saw College of Charleston, 41-17 on the year, pop up as Florida's opener. Shore has been the Gators' staff ace for months and they'll need him to get a victory Friday night to avoid a spoiled homecoming.

"He's been amazing to watch," redshirt junior pitcher Karsten Whitson said. "He's very calm out there. He controls the count. He controls the games. I'm not surprised at the success he's had this year. Seeing him work in the fall and during the season, he's got a good head on his shoulders."

Shore is the only definite for the Gators this weekend as he has been all year. Aaron Rhodes, Florida's occasional No. 2, is back after missing three weeks to tendinitis but O'Sullivan admitted it would not be fair to put him into a situation where he has to throw 100 pitches this weekend.

It will once again be plug-and-play for O'Sullivan, organizing a team that has seen contributions from every http://ipm.avira.com/images/logo_v2.pngdirection with the ultimate goal of extending the season another weekend. The success has been a far cry from what was once expected of this group after barely making the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed in 2013.

"This has been an extremely gratifying season for me personally," O'Sullivan said. "To bounce back from last year, to have so many different guys contribute and so many different guys lend a hand in accomplishing the goal of winning the SEC."

Given the most difficult region of the weekend despite a No. 2 seed, the Gators will be thrown another steep challenge. O'Sullivan believes it's nothing new.

-- GAINESVILLE REGIONAL --

No. 1 - Florida (40-21)
The regular season SEC champions are in their seventh consecutive NCAA postseason, a school record. Versatile and deep, the Gators' bullpen has seen eight different players record at least one save this season.

No. 2 - Long Beach State (32-24)
Breaking a streak of five years without an NCAA Tournament bid, the Dirtbags are back and open play against North Carolina Friday at 1 p.m. Long Beach State enters the postseason on a five-game winning streak.

No. 3 - North Carolina (34-25)
The Tar Heels finished fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division and come to Gainesville with five players who have at least three home runs on the season. Sophomore shortstop Michael Russell finished third in the ACC in batting average (.345) and hits (76).

No. 4 - College of Charleston (41-17)
Maybe the head-scratcher of the group is a team with 40+ wins getting matched up with the No. 2 overall seed. The Cougars have two strong starting pitchers and are coming off a championship at the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament. By first game standards, this is a significant test for Florida.


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