Florida sets sights again on 1st national baseball title

by: ERIC OLSON, AP Sports Writer Updated:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Florida has done everything except win a national championship in eight seasons under Kevin O'Sullivan, and here the Gators are again with a roster overflowing with talent and the consensus No. 1 ranking in the preseason polls.

Is this the year?

"Do we want to win it? Absolutely," O'Sullivan said. "Do we understand that there are a lot of things that have to happen between now and then? I hope so. Unfortunately — and we've talked about this, too — the best team on paper normally does not win the national championship."

That last comment was O'Sullivan's way of making sure his players don't let their heads outgrow their caps. Few teams have been so celebrated before playing their first game.

Florida's 52 wins last year were one off the school record, and it was a top-eight national seed in the NCAA Tournament for the sixth time in seven years. The Gators went unbeaten through regionals and super regionals before a pair of one-run losses to eventual national champion Virginia denied them a spot in the College World Series finals.

"Any time you get that close to something, especially winning the national championship, which we haven't done here yet, it gets you going a little bit and gets you motivated, especially us juniors," star pitcher Logan Shore said. "We have sophomores coming off good years and freshmen coming in, and we're all ready to go. This group of guys is a championship group of guys."

Shore, A.J. Puk and Alex Faedo are an imposing weekend rotation that combined for a 26-11 record last season. Brady Singer, a second-round draft pick last year, and Jackson Kowar are among the pitchers in the highly rated recruiting class.

The Gators brought back six everyday players. Center fielder Buddy Reed is a projected first-round draft pick after batting .305 with 14 doubles and 47 RBIs and stealing 18 bases. Catcher JJ Schwarz is coming off a freshman season in which he tied for fourth nationally with 18 home runs. First baseman Peter Alonso's 429-foot homer in the CWS was the longest in the five years the event has been played at TD Ameritrade Park.

O'Sullivan said there'll be internal challenges for his players to meet in addition to those presented by tough nonconference and Southeastern Conference schedules.

"We have juniors who have to deal with expectations in regard to the draft. We've got a sophomore class that contributed an awful lot last year and was successful, and we have to make sure those guys don't try to do more than what they're capable of doing," O'Sullivan said. "And then you've got freshmen. They're going to be dealing with some failures they haven't dealt with before, and being able to move on and have short memories will be important."

Vanderbilt, which edged out Florida to win the SEC East last year and was the national runner-up, still represents the Gators' biggest obstacle even though it lost No. 1 overall draft pick Dansby Swanson and its entire weekend rotation. Center fielder Bryan Reynolds has had back-to-back 90-hit seasons and is one of the nation's top offensive players, and coach Tim Corbin has a bunch of talented pitchers who have been waiting for their turn to take the spotlight. LSU and Texas A&M appear to be the best in the SEC West.

Among other teams to watch are Louisville, Oregon State, Miami, Oklahoma State and California.

Louisville, beaten in super regionals in 2015 after going to the CWS the previous two years, has a veteran lineup and an offense that applies pressure at every opportunity. Oregon State was devastated by the draft in 2014 but came on strong at the end of last season to make the NCAA Tournament.

Miami brought back most of its pitching staff from the team that went to the CWS for the first time since 2008. Big 12 favorite Oklahoma State has a versatile offense and a good supply of arms. California tied a school record with 18 Pac-12 wins last season, and the entire weekend rotation and seven everyday players are back.

As good as those teams and others in the Top 25 should be, Florida is considered a cut above the rest.

Shore, the Gators' ace, pointed out that he and his junior teammates already have won an SEC championship, SEC tournament title and have played in the CWS.

"The one thing we haven't done is win a national championship," he said. "Though that may seem stressful having that hanging over your head, we're not looking at it that way. We're looking at it more from the perspective of coming in every day, working hard, doing things right on and off the field and becoming a close-knit group of guys. If we bring our 'A' game every day, things will take care of themselves."

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