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Tuesday January 30, 20072007 Gator Baseball Season Outlook

Gainesville, FL

In 2005, the University of Florida baseball program enjoyed the type of campaign that many schools dream about, as head coach Pat McMahon guided the Gators to the Southeastern Conference title and a berth in the championship round of the NCAA College World Series. Fresh off of a runner-up performance in Omaha and a program-best ranking of second in the final polls, hopes for a seventh-consecutive trip to Regionals and a return engagement at college baseball's premier event were running high in Gainesville.


Although UF entered last year occupying Collegiate Baseball's top spot and claimed 16 of its first 22 outings, an assortment of untimely injuries and difficult circumstances resulted in a 28-28 record and absence from the postseason. Returning 21 letterwinners and only three position starters, McMahon is hopeful that this nucleus can combine with the influx of talented newcomers and enable the Orange and Blue to regain its status among the SEC's elite. Boasting a recruiting corps named the third-best in America by Collegiate Baseball, Florida's ranking marked its seventh time in the top 10 on the publication's list and represented a seven-spot jump from last year's rating of 10th.


"We are obviously very excited about our incoming class," McMahon said. "This is an outstanding group of young men with a great work ethic. We fully expect a lot of these student-athletes to have the opportunity to step right in and complete for playing time immediately. Recruiting is a critical part of the success equation and we continue to work hard for our specific needs and to maintain positional and class balance around the effects of graduation and professional baseball signings."


"Recruiting is the lifeblood of any program and it is important that we continue to bring in quality people, both on and off the field. It is a priority for us at the University of Florida to find players who can fit our system. We feel that recruiting is a team effort and the job done by Ross Jones, Don Norris and Tim Parenton played an important role for us."


"We are proud to have our second top-10 recruiting class in the past three years, particularly with losing five signees to the Major League Baseball Draft," McMahon acknowledged. "I am a firm believer that the strength of a recruiting class shows up when their class graduates and the achievements during their tenure are discussed."


Now in his sixth year at the helm, McMahon directed the Gators to four-consecutive NCAA Regional championship games from 2002-05, back-to-back Super Regional appearances in '04 and '05 and the club's first SEC crown and College World Series appearance since 1998. Proving the adage about students first, athletes second, McMahon has stressed scholastic excellence during his coaching career, evidenced by 63 SEC Academic Honor Roll selections at Florida over his first five seasons and a total of 98 recipients since 1998.


“We are very proud of our academic achievements,” McMahon stated. “A degree from the University of Florida is so important, and to put our players in position to graduate is a vital component of our program. Our players do a great job in learning to pay attention to detail in everything they do, and academic excellence is a huge part of the success equation.”


McMahon has also overseen improved player development toward an increased Gator presence in professional baseball. Six players from last year's team, including four-year standout Bryan Ball, as well as David Cash, Adam Davis, Gavin Dickey, Brian Jeroloman and Matt LaPorta, were selected in the MLB Draft, while Darren O'Day signed a free-agent contract. Thirty Florida players have been chosen during McMahon's tenure in Gainesville, including 13 within the first 10 rounds.


“In losing six guys from last year's club to professional baseball, we take that as a tremendous compliment,” McMahon said. “Because those guys moving on can now live the Florida dream in pro baseball, we receive a sense of satisfaction in playing a role in their future success.”


Boosted by the $13-million dollar expansion to McKethan Stadium, featuring a baseball-only facility, the Gators' skipper is even more excited than usual for the curtain to be raised on the season.


"Expectations are always high for every program at Florida," McMahon said. "While everyone is energized about the men's basketball and football teams winning their sport's most recent national title, we take that as a challenge to be competing for not only the SEC championship, but also the NCAA crown. Having this new building adds another dimension to our program and words can't describe how much this project will help us with day-to-day activities and recruiting."




For the first time in three years, Gator fans will have to get used to seeing someone other than Jeroloman handling the pitching staff, as the two-time Johnny Bench Watch List selection was drafted in the sixth round and signed professionally with the Toronto Blue Jays after his junior season. According to assistant coach Parenton, sophomore Cody Neer and freshman Hampton Tignor are in a virtual dead-heat entering the spring.


In his rookie campaign, Neer played in 15 games and drew six starts as UF's designated hitter. Before arriving in Gainesville, he was a first-team all-state catcher in Class 6A at Edgewater (Fla.) High School and led the state with a .528 batting average during his senior year. Having surrendered one stolen base in helping Sarasota High School to a second-place showing at the state tournament last season, Tignor batted .340 after being named a 2006 Puma Preseason All-American by Team One and the Baseball Factory.


"We think that both Cody and Hampton can fill our needs behind the plate throughout the season," Parenton said. "Consistency at catcher is a trait that Florida is known for and we are confident that this trend will continue for us."


Also waiting in the wings for an opportunity are junior Dustin Bamberg, who was a first-team All-Panhandle Conference and second-team all-state choice at Tallahassee C.C. for the past two seasons, and sophomore Teddy Foster. Bamberg hit .343 with 58 runs batted in, 14 doubles and 10 home runs in helping the Eagles to a 38-14 mark, while Foster has progressed up the depth chart in his time as a Gator.



With senior first baseman LaPorta the lone returning starter at the same position as last season, Florida's infield defense will have a completely different look. Junior Brandon McArthur will be making the adjustment from second to third base, with junior college transfer Jon Townsend taking over at shortstop and freshman Cole Figueroa expected to handle the starting chores at second base.


The 2005 SEC Player of the Year, LaPorta was a consensus first-team All-American as a sophomore, when he led Division I with a school-record 26 homers and drove in 79 runs. Last season, he missed 13 games with an oblique muscle strain and hit .259 over 43 games. Still, the slugger led the Gators with 14 homers and a .410 on-base percentage and rated third with 38 RBI. Over his three-year collegiate career, LaPorta boasts a .298 average, is one homer shy of matching Brad Wilkerson's school standard of 55 homers and is sixth on UF's career list with 154 RBI. He was chosen by the Boston Red Sox in the 14th round of last June's draft and elected to remain in school.


"We were excited about Matt returning to Florida for his senior year," McMahon said. "He felt that there were team goals to be taken care of and he has made a tremendous commitment to the Gators. We are very proud of Matt, he is an outstanding person and we look forward to his continued leadership, both on and off the field."


A two-time Academic All-SEC selection, McArthur saw action in 46 games in 2006, with 25 starts at second base, 13 at third base and five as the DH. He finished the season with a .571 (4-for-7) clip in the series triumph over LSU and registered a season average of .262 with 20 RBI and 19 runs. Meanwhile, Townsend sported a .374 average at Saddleback (Calif.) C.C. and poked 12 doubles on his way to second-team All-Orange Empire Conference accolades. He will replace former All-American Adam Davis, a third-round pick of the Cleveland Indians. Figueroa, a first-team all-state choice in Class 5A at Lincoln (Fla.) High School who hit an eye-popping .563 with 70 RBI in his final prep season, was a ninth-round selection of the Toronto Blue Jays who spurned the professional opportunity to attend UF.


"Despite the restructuring of our defense, we believe this group will be consistent with a lot of flexibility and movement," Parenton said. "Possessing more depth and having increased options compared to last year is another situation that will work into our favor." 


Senior Austin Pride, who started 28 of 40 games at four different positions and responded with a .270 batting average and 21 RBI, has the versatility to work himself into the lineup at either of the infield corner spots. Junior Bryson Barber hopes to parlay the momentum generated by his .326 (15-for-46) performance in 15 SEC contests to an increased role for the Gators, either at first base or as the club's designated hitter. Local product Avery Barnes participated in 15 games as a rookie and looks for more playing time following a strong summer playing in the Florida Collegiate Summer League, where he was first in runs (37) and stolen bases (24) and second in batting average (.361).


Redshirt freshman Clayton Pisani saw time during Florida's fall workouts at second base, shortstop and third base. On the strength of a .402 performance at the plate, he was a second-team all-state pick after his senior year at Barron Collier (Fla.) High School. A member of the 2005 Florida Class 4A state champion Tate High School team, freshman Jake Hicks is another newcomer whom the Gators will be counting upon to make an impact.



Returning starters in right and left field, respectively, seniors Brian Leclerc and Chris Petrie hope to close their collegiate careers on a winning note. The Most Outstanding Player of the 2005 NCAA Gainesville Regional and the Gators' top hitter that year during the NCAA Tournament with a .366 effort, Leclerc aims to rebound from a season in which he hit .262 overall with 25 RBI and .211 in league play. In his first season at Florida after being a second-team all-state recipient at nearby Lake City C.C., Petrie made 35 starts in left field and batted .241 with 22 runs and 16 RBI.


"We are hoping that Brian and Chris can provide senior leadership by example," Parenton said. "While they will shoulder a lot of responsibility at the outset of the season, we feel that there are several capable candidates who will work their way into the lineup."


Matt den Dekker headlines a quartet of freshmen engaged in a stiff competition for the center-field position. A first-team Louisville Slugger All-American at Westminster Academy last spring, Fort Lauderdale native den Dekker batted .455 with 34 runs, 20 RBI and seven homers. A second-team all-state honoree in Class 4A at Jesuit (Fla.) High School in '06, Ryan Lockwood appeared on the Watch List for the Rawlings Defensive Player of the Year and helped the Tigers reach the final four of the state tournament for the fourth year in a row. Chosen by the Oakland Athletics in the 31st round of the MLB Draft, Jonathan Pigott collected Offensive Player of the Year kudos and an assortment of other honors after turning in a .430 clip at Seabreeze (Fla.) High School. A wide receiver and member of the special teams for the national champion Gator football team, Riley Cooper will become a two-sport athlete at UF when he steps onto the diamond this spring. A 15th-round draft choice of the Philadelphia Phillies last June, the Clearwater Central Catholic High School product was rated the 22nd-best prospect in the Sunshine State by Baseball America.


Returning to action after shoulder surgery caused him to miss last season, sophomore Jared Kubin is expected to play a key role for the Gators. The Oakton, Va., native started as UF's designated hitter 34 times as a freshman during the run to the NCAA College World Series and batted .292 with 18 RBI. Sophomore Cody Wheeler, who redshirted last spring following a transfer from Duke, hopes to be in the mix for playing time.



A second-team All-SEC performer last year, junior Bryan Augenstein will serve as the anchor for a youthful Gator starting rotation. The right-hander from Sebastian, Fla., worked at least seven innings in 13 of his 15 starts and compiled a 9-6 season ledger with a 3.07 earned run average before pitching for the 2006 USA National Team last summer. Augenstein was fourth in the league with 111.1 innings pitched and was sixth in both strikeouts (98) and lowest ERA.


"Having a proven ace in Bryan gives us a comfort level since we know what to expect from him," sixth-year pitching coach Jones said. "If he can continue to pitch deep into games, it will certainly help the rest of our weekend rotation and line up the bullpen the right way."


A Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American in '05, when he started the opening game of the CWS Championship Series against Texas, sophomore Stephen Locke is eager to be back on the mound after sitting out last season following "Tommy John" surgery. The southpaw was 5-2 as a rookie with a 4.04 ERA and totaled 46 strikeouts in 64.2 innings.


The trio of freshmen Billy Bullock, Kevin Chapman and Tony Davis are ready to showcase their talents on the collegiate level. Right-hander Bullock was picked by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 20th round of the 2006 MLB Draft and set a single-game record at Riverview (Fla.) High School last season with 16 K. A left-hander from Westminster Academy hailing from Coral Springs, Fla., Chapman was a 2006 first-team Louisville Slugger Preseason All-American who was taken by the Detroit Tigers in the 42nd round of June's draft. A second-team all-state choice at North Broward Prep (Fla.) as a senior, lefty Davis was 6-0 with a scant 0.58 ERA and tallied 68 strikeouts in 54 frames.


The foundation for the Gators' bullpen consists of junior right-hander Josh Edmondson and senior left-handers David Hurst and Steven Porter. Edmondson (5-0, 3.21 ERA) tied for the top spot in the SEC with 35 appearances and notched 37 K compared to 10 walks in 67.1 innings, while Hurst participated in 27 games and was 1-1 with a 3.35 ERA. Both players will have opportunities to close ballgames. Although Porter's first 13 appearances last year came in a relief role, he made road starts at Mississippi State and Alabama to conclude the season with positive results.


Other candidates for relief duty include senior RHP Kris Gawriluk, senior LHP Patrick Thompson, junior RHP Tommy Wynn, sophomore RHP Patrick Keating, sophomore LHP J.K. LaCoste and freshmen right-handers Clint Franklin and Kyle Mullaney.  Gawriluk (0-2, 5.13 ERA) started five games and saw time in 12 contests in his first season at Florida, Thompson tossed 2.1 innings in his three appearances, while Wynn (8.0 IP, five games) and Keating (2.2 IP, three games) saw limited action last year. LaCoste made seven starts for the Gators as a rookie and was 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA and 11 K in 26 innings. Franklin helped Lyman (Fla.) High School to the district championship in 2005 before completing his prep career at Timber Creek High School and Mullaney collected second-team all-state honors for Bishop Kenny High School in Jacksonville on the strength of an 8-2 mark. Unfortunately for the Orange and Blue, right-handers Michael Branham, Andy Gale, Jarrod Langlois and Chas Spottswood will be sidelined for the season.


"I like the complexion of our staff," Jones said. "They have worked hard throughout the off-season and there seems to be increased focus entering the season. This group seems to have a firm grasp on what they're trying to accomplish and possesses an excellent work ethic."


"When people see our mid-week schedule, facing quality opponents such as Florida State three times, Army, North Florida, Stetson, UCF and USF to name a few, it will important for us to develop more pitchers before SEC play begins. We have a good blend of veterans and newcomers and it will be an interesting season for us."



The Gators' 56-game schedule features 34 games within the friendly confines of McKethan Stadium at Perry Field and 30 games versus opponents who advanced to the NCAA Tournament last season. For the seventh-consecutive campaign and the 19th time in 21 years, Florida will open its season at home, hosting a three-game series against VMI from Fri.-Sun., Feb. 9-11. The Gators will be tested by the challenging 30-game SEC schedule and will also face traditional Sunshine State rivals Florida State, Miami, Jacksonville, Stetson, Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M, North Florida, UCF and USF. UF hosts the 2006 College World Series participant Hurricanes for three games over Feb. 16-18 and will clash with the Seminoles in three mid-week affairs, hosting FSU on Feb. 20, facing its archrivals on April 3 at the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and visiting Tallahassee on April 18.


A highlight of the non-conference road schedule for the Gators will be a trip to College Station for a weekend series at Big 12 power Texas A&M from March 9-11. The Aggies claimed two of three meetings in Gainesville during the front end of the home-and-home series last March. An assortment of national foes will visit McKethan Stadium, including Army, George Washington, Kent State and VMI.


The five three-game SEC home series pit the Gators against Mississippi State (March 16-18), South Carolina (April 6-8), defending Eastern Division champion Kentucky (April 20-22), reigning Western Division champion Alabama (May 4-6) and Tennessee (May 17-19). Florida will open the league schedule in Gainesville on March 16 against the Bulldogs and is not slated to face West rival Ole Miss, the 2006 SEC Tournament champion, during the regular season. The final weekend of the SEC regular season will be contested from Thursday-Saturday to provide an extra day off before the start of the league's tourney.


Stops on the squad's road itinerary include trips to Auburn (March 23-25), Georgia (March 30-April 1), Arkansas (April 13-15), Vanderbilt (April 27-29) and LSU (May 11-13). UF's 2007 schedule boasts 21 games against squads that finished among the top-30 in the final version of the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI).


UF will be seeking a return to the eight-team SEC Tournament at Hoover Metropolitan Stadium in Hoover, Ala., to be held from May 23-27. Following the league's postseason event, the Orange and Blue hopes to have its sights set upon its 24th NCAA Tourney appearance. Regionals will take place at 16 campus sites between June 1-4, followed by the best-of-three Super Regionals spread out among eight venues over June 8-11. Soon after, the eight survivors will advance to the 61st College World Series at Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb., from June 15-25. UF has reached the CWS five times in school history, most recently in 2005 when it was the national runner-up. 






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