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Tuesday June 19, 2012These Gators Didn't Win A CWS Title, But They Conquered Perhaps A Bigger Challenge

Scott Carter
By SCOTT CARTER Senior Writer

OMAHA, Neb. -- They came here to conquer.

Conquer all those expectations. Conquer the close calls of the past. Conquer any lingering doubt that this is the most talented group of players to ever form a single University of Florida baseball team.

The Gators had a mission to complete and a legacy to define.

"I wanted it to be a World Series champion,'' senior outfielder Preston Tucker said.

Tucker's words came shortly after a 5-4 loss to Kent State on Monday in a College World Series elimination game. The reality of the situation had not quite set in.

As Tucker spoke in the immediate aftermath of his final game in a Florida uniform, junior catcher Mike Zunino stood nearby taking similar questions.

Tucker and Zunino have been two of the main faces of head coach Kevin O'Sullivan's program since he took over the Gators five years ago.

In that time the Gators have won more games than at any other time in the program's history. They have made three consecutive trips to the College World Series. They finished national runner-up a year ago and wanted so desperately to climb up the final step on the CWS ladder in 2012.

That dream was dashed with back-to-back losses, a 7-3 defeat to South Carolina on Saturday and Monday's nail-biting loss to the upstart Golden Flashes.

The Gators were knocking on the door in the top of the ninth, trying to extend their stay in Omaha. And then it was over with the bases left loaded.

The players looked dazed as they headed toward the bus for the short trip back to the team hotel. O'Sullivan wandered a hallway outside the clubhouse still trying to grasp what had happened.

"It's going to take a while to hit me,'' Zunino said.

That's probably true for most of the Gators. They came to Omaha as the No. 1 overall seed and the favorite to finally win the program's first national title in the eyes of many.

They had the deepest pitching staff in the country, a lineup loaded with experienced hitters, and they played exceptional defense.

The Gators had their moments during this CWS, but not enough to avoid a heartbreaking finish to another exceptional season.

"Unfortunately we didn't bring our A-game. We didn't play the best we could,'' Tucker said. "Obviously if you are not playing well and other teams are playing well you are not going to win."

The Gators made five errors in the two games. They left too many men on base. They didn't get as many clutch hits as they needed. The pitching staff gave up too many hits.

All those factors caught up to them Monday when they fell behind early to Kent State 4-0 and were never able to come all the way back.

"It came down to the last out,'' O'Sullivan said. "I'm awfully proud of our guys and the way they battled back.

"It's an unfortunate way to end the season, but I think Kent State deserves a lot of credit for the way they played."

The team that O'Sullivan will field next year will be without many familiar faces, including seniors like Tucker and reliever Greg Larson.

Several juniors are likely to sign professional contracts as well, creating a big void on next year's team.

But what a run they had. A run like no other for those in orange and blue.

The Gators have won 100 games the past two seasons and 189 the past four years. The program is now considered one of the nation's most established due to players like Zunino and Tucker and starter Hudson Randall and a large cast of others.

The freshmen class includes several key contributors as well, including four -- third baseman Josh Tobias, second baseman Casey Turgeon, first baseman Taylor Gushue and outfielder Justin Shafer -- in the starting lineup on Monday.

This team's run is over but the program's dash toward the top appears not too far from the starting line.

"There is a good mixture of talent and experience on this team,'' Tucker said. "Coach O'Sullivan is going to keep doing that. We see new faces in here every year. There is so much talent. Our team next year is going to expect nothing less than a World Series title."

O'Sullivan tried to put this group's run in perspective in his postgame press conference, but he admitted he may need more time to do it justice.

"They've been very successful,'' he said. "I've been awfully proud of the way they've played the game and the way they've represented our program.

"They've set a new standard that following teams will have to live up to."

That sounds about right.

The Florida baseball program has a new identity. The Gators still don't have a national title, but they expect to challenge for one every season now.

Zunino is proud to have been a part of that transformation.

"I hope that his first few recruiting classes did what he wanted,'' Zunino said of O'Sullivan "We didn't win the national championship, but I hope we laid the ground work for what he wants to have in years to come."

There is no question this group of players conquered that challenge.


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