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Sunday June 12, 2011Pressure-Packed Day Ends in Relief for O'Sullivan and Gators

Gainesville, Fla.

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The smile on Kevin O’Sullivan’s face said so much.

So did those vivacious Gator chomps O’Sullivan unleashed.

O’Sullivan was in his own world, a combination of swirling emotions as he celebrated and urged the fans behind Florida’s dugout to do the same.

The role was a new one for Florida’s skipper immediately after the Gators’ 8-6 win over Mississippi State on a sweltering Sunday afternoon at McKethan Stadium.

The heat was on the Gators like at no other time in O’Sullivan’s four seasons when they arrived at the ballpark on Sunday for the championship game of the Gainesville Super Regional.

Mississippi State’s Nick Vickerson made it that way Saturday when he drilled a two-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth to even the series at a game apiece and force a winner-to-Omaha Game 3 on Sunday.

“You almost feel like you lost the series right there,’’ Gators catcher Mike Zunino said.

“It was a very, very tough loss,’’ O’Sullivan said. “You don’t get left on your field very often, if ever.’’

O’Sullivan remained in a fog early Saturday evening, questioning if he made all the right moves in the 4-3 loss. To help snap out of it, he called Gators basketball coach Billy Donovan.

Donovan had spoken to the Gators prior to Saturday’s game in the dugout and O’Sullivan likes to pick Donovan’s brain from time to time.

Donovan offered a suggestion: call a team meeting.

As soon as O’Sullivan hung up, he started reaching out to the players, who had scattered for the night, to tell them to come back to the stadium.

“You’re rolling the dice because you’re doing something you don’t normally do,’’ O’Sullivan said. “For lack of a better term, I had my head in my rear end [Saturday] night and I needed to pick myself up because the players were going to look to me.’’

What was O’Sullivan’s message? Forget about today, focus on tomorrow.

O’Sullivan then went home and tried to relax with wife Barbara Jo and 6-month-old daughter Payton. That didn’t work out so well.

“It was a hard long night,’’ said O’Sullivan, who had trouble sleeping and eating. “I wanted the players to come focused and have some intensity, but I didn’t want them to be tight.

“It took a lot of restraint; it took a lot of thinking. I had to think through the words. I had to do the best job I could, because everything was lined up for this team to lose [Sunday].’’ 

O’Sullivan started to feel better Sunday morning when he received an unexpected call from Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who has a collection of Super Bowl rings from his time in the NFL.

Weis called mostly to offer encouragement and wish O’Sullivan and the Gators luck as they attempted to become the first team in program history to make back-to-back trips to the College World Series.

Once O’Sullivan arrived at the stadium and walked into the clubhouse, he felt even better.

The meeting appeared to have worked in at least relaxing the team.

“The players were in there listening to music, dancing and joking around,’’ O’Sullivan said.

Once Sunday’s thriller started, O’Sullivan and everyone else at McKethan Stadium hopped on a wild roller-coaster ride that didn’t come to a stop until Tommy Toledo got Vickerson – that’s a name those in orange and blue will remember for a while after this weekend – to fly out to left field to end the game.

The Gators were headed back to Omaha. But it was anything but easy.

Florida led 4-0 on early home runs from Zunino, Daniel Pigott and Vickash Ramjit. The Bulldogs, like they did all weekend, bit back with a vengeance.

Vickerson hit a three-run homer off Florida starter Alex Panteliodis in the fourth and the Bulldogs added three more runs in the seventh for a 6-4 lead, the tying run coming home on an RBI single by Vickerson.

The heat was back on the Gators.

“After my hit I was like, ‘If they win this game, they are going to earn it,’ ’’ Vickerson said. “And that’s what they did. The only thing I can say about them is that they are a very good team.’’

Down to what could be their final nine outs of the season, the Gators opened the seventh with Bryson Smith and Nolan Fontana drawing back-to-back walks.

Up stepped Zunino to the plate. But instead of letting the SEC Player of the Year swing away, O’Sullivan rolled the dice the same way he did Saturday night when he called that team meeting.

He had Zunino lay down a sacrifice bunt, moving the tying runs into scoring position for outfielder Preston Tucker, who was 1-for-8 in the series but had hit several balls hard.

Tucker hit Caleb Reed’s outside change-up the hardest of all, drilling his 40th career homer – and school-record eighth career postseason homer – for a 7-6 lead. Pigott added an insurance run in the eighth with his second homer of the game and the Gators’ season-high fifth.

“I got a change-up I could handle and I put a good swing on it,’’ Tucker said. “We had just given up three runs … everyone was kind of questioning whether or not we could come back even though we’ve done it plenty of times this year.

“It completely changed the momentum.’’

More than that, it spelled R-E-L-I-E-F for the Gators, who started the season ranked No. 1 and entered the postseason back on top after winning the SEC Tournament.

They felt the pressure to get back to Omaha, never more so than when they walked off their home field on Saturday as another team celebrated.

Once the mission was accomplished late Sunday afternoon, once the Gators reached 50 wins for only the third time in the program’s 97-year history, once his postgame press conference was over, O’Sullivan unleashed another huge smile when Barbara Jo handed him his cell phone.

In just a little more than half an hour after the game O’Sullivan had already received 115 text messages and 15 emails. He had some reading to do Sunday night.

O’Sullivan’s smile widened, saying even more about what a day it was.

“You need special performances like this,’’ he said. “It’s just a relief. I’ve probably learned more about coaching in the last 24 hours than I had in the last four years.’’

 

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