GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – On an overcast and muggy Friday morning, the Gators baseball team loosened up at McKethan Stadium for its final workout prior to the start of the NCAA Gainesville Super Regional against N.C. State.
The Gators went about their business as usual in the quiet and soggy ballpark. As the grounds crew lifted the tarp that covered the infield to remove excess water, some of the players gathered to hit in the batting cages. Others warmed up in the bullpen.
There was little indication other than the NCAA Tournament logos painted on the field that this weekend’s best-of-three series against the Wolfpack was anything more than another ho-hum midseason series.
The Gators like it that way.
“We’re kind of letting everything come to us,’’ said junior pitcher Hudson Randall, who will start Game 1 Saturday. “It’s nice being here at home. We’ve been in this spot three years in a row. The guys on the team know what to expect. We know what we are getting into. We feel fairly confident in ourselves and are ready to go.”
The Gators (45-18) have talked all season about how important it is for them to remain focused amidst the great expectations, their No. 1 ranking to open the season, and their quest for a third consecutive trip to the College World Series and the program’s first national title.
They managed to stay grounded well enough during the regular season to earn the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their focus was tested again this week when nine Gators were selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft, including junior catcher Mike Zunino with the third overall pick, the highest-drafted player in school history.
Gators coach Kevin O’Sullivan said Friday the Gators passed that test with flying colors.
“We’ve had a really good week of practice,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got the draft and that type of thing behind us. As a coach, you’ve got to be excited by all the rewards our players have gotten. We’ve handled this whole draft thing as well as we probably could this year.
“The players have been mature about it. The expectations, I think they have handled it great. I think our team is in a really good place right now.”
The Gators are hosting a Wolfpack team that is in a Super Regional for the first time since 2008. N.C. State advanced by overcoming a four-run deficit on Monday night to defeat Vanderbilt 9-7 in the championship game of the Raleigh Regional.
N.C. State features a lineup that includes the nation’s stolen bases leader in freshman third baseman Trea Turner, who is hitting .344 and has 56 steals in 60 attempts. The power comes from outfielder Ryan Mathews, who is batting .336 with a team-high 17 home runs and 62 RBI.
And while we’re talking about Florida’s ability to focus, the Gators will need to be locked in at the plate, especially in Game 2 on Sunday, when Wolfpack freshman left Carlos Rodon takes the mound.
N.C. State coach Elliott Avent has opted to start right-hander Ethan Ogburn (5-3, 3.23 ERA) and save Rodon (9-0, 1.61 ERA) for Sunday. Rodon throws in the mid-90s and is considered one of the top pitching prospects in college baseball.
The Wolfpack (43-18) rode to Gainesville on a wave of confidence following their memorable comeback against Vanderbilt. N.C. State had to beat the Commodores on back-to-back days to advance and did so, highlighted by the comeback on Monday night.
“Every time you when a game like this, it makes you a little bit tougher and it makes you feel like you can do anything,’’ Avent said afterward.
The Gators are also confident and well-rested following Sunday’s 15-3 thumping of Georgia Tech.
Senior outfielder Preston Tucker said the down time came at a perfect time considering how many Gators were selected in the draft. Tucker went in the seventh round to Houston.
“That’s a couple of days that the players really like to enjoy,’’ Tucker said. “Luckily we weren’t playing games at that time so everyone could sit back an enjoy it. We had a few days off until the next game. Everyone has started to refocus on the goals we have in mind and everyone is ready to go.”
The goal has not changed. The bulk of this year’s team got a taste of Omaha two years ago. They experienced the championship series a year ago as national runner-up to South Carolina.
They want to go one step further in 2012.
“Every year since I’ve been here we’ve gotten a little closer,’’ Tucker said. “I think everyone has been as focused as ever. We all have a common goal in winning the World Series. I know that’s what is on everybody’s mind.”
O’Sullivan spent a large portion early in the season working to unify that goal among the newcomers and the veterans. Once that common goal was formed, he stepped out of the way and let the players play.
He took a similar approach this week during the draft.
“I’m just excited the players were able to enjoy that,’’ he said. “I gave them a couple of days to do that, but they came back out on Wednesday and they were really focused.”
Soon, the Gators will scatter and go their separate ways. But first, they want to complete a mission. They need two more wins to get back to Omaha. That was the goal on everyone’s mind Friday.
“They understand they can’t advance unless they play well this weekend,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We’ve got more important things to take care of.”