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For Florida Gators, An Unlikely, Magical Run Comes to An End at College World Series

 Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network  |    Jun 20th, 2024 8:12am EDT

The Florida Gators punched their ticket to the College World Series by sweeping the Super Regional against the Clemson Tigers on June 9, 2024 at Doug Kingsmore Stadium in Clemson, S.C. (Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

OMAHA, Neb. – Ever see an alligator waiting in a bayou with only its eyes and the tip of its snout above the water?

It sits there, waiting for its prey, and then – BAM! It snaps its jaws shut on the unlucky critter that swam by.

Similarly, the Florida Gators laid still just beneath the surface, perhaps underestimated by the college baseball world in 2024, despite having taken Louisiana State to a third game in the 2023 College World Series.

Going into the 2024 NCAA Baseball Tournament, it was somewhat easy to sleep on Florida. After all, they got into the tournament with a 28-27 record, earning the No. 3 seed in the Stillwater, Okla. Regional with the fourth-best record, behind the host, Oklahoma State, No. 2 seed Nebraska, and No. 4 seed Niagara.

And despite playing in one of what were the two strongest conferences in college baseball this season, Florida’s 13-17 record in Southeastern Conference play was something between unimpressive and underwhelming, despite a roster with just five seniors and 15 freshman on a team of 37 and returning 13 players who had an extended run in Omaha a year ago.

But these Gators got hot at the right time, and made a run that got them two wins away from a return trip to the College World Series final.

That run came to an end Wednesday night with an 6-0 loss to Texas A&M, a team that they previously played four times in 2024, going 1-3 against the Aggies.

” There’s been a lot of ups and downs. Our players persevered through a lot of different tough moments. Awfully proud of our team,” said Florida head coach Kevin O’Sullivan. “But this time of year it’s difficult. It’s really hard to put into words. It’s like you’re going full speed in a sprint and all of a sudden it just comes to an end just like that.

On Wednesday, the Aggies got a stellar start from Justin Lamkin, who allowed three hits over five shutout innings with nine strikeouts to earn the win, a pair of shutout innings from Josh Stewart, who struck out four and allowed one hit, and Evan Aschenbeck came in to throw the final two innings.

The only hiccup for the A&M hurlers came when Chris Cortez came in to relieve Lamkin to start the sixth and threw eight consecutive balls to walk Cade Kurland and Tyler Shelnut.

Facing the dominant A&M pitching, the Gators offense that exploded for 15 runs and 14 hits against Kentucky in the early game mustered just four hits and seven baserunners in the elimination game at night.

“We had our opportunities, very similar to the game on Saturday night, we had our opportunities, we just, I think we struck out 30 times over the course of those two games,” O’Sullivan said. “But credit Lamkin, he threw the ball extremely well. And, yeah, it’s part of it and that’s the reason why they’re moving on.”

The Gators scraped, scratched, clawed, and fought through 15 consecutive games on the road, culminating in a showdown with their Southeastern Conference rival at Charles Schwab Field.

“Obviously our road to this point has been a little bit different. It seems like we’ve been on the road forever,” O’Sullivan told the media on June 13 in advance of the College World Series. “I think it’s been six straight weeks or so. Georgia, then Hoover, and obviously went to Stillwater and Clemson and now Omaha.”

On May 12, Florida played its last home game of the season, a 5-4 loss in 10 innings against Kentucky.

But despite all the road miles, the Gators have gone on a tear since arriving in Stillwater, going 8-3 and putting themselves a pair of wins away from a return to the College World Series finals, and O’Sullivan never doubted the makeup of his club.

“Every team is different, and obviously our road this year is different than in years past, but I always felt like if we could stay above .500 and get in the tournament that we would have as good a chance as anybody,” he said on June 13.

Two-way star Jac Caglianone, expected to be among the top five picks in the upcoming Major League Baseball Draft, likely won’t be back next year, and there will undoubtedly be further roster churn for O’Sullivan, given we now live in an era where coaches are recruiting their own players for next year, as well as scouring the transfer portal for pieces that fit the puzzle.

O’Sullivan conceded that all the travel and playing against some of college baseball’s best teams had not been easy.

“This team never quit. There’s a lot of people that said a lot of negative things about us this year and, you know, we kind of deserved it at times. We didn’t play as well as we should,” he said.

“We were fighting the .500 mark and fighting the SEC mark. And you know, what they did is nothing short of remarkable, to have to go to Georgia and win two out of three and then go to Stillwater and go to Clemson and then lose a really tough game on Saturday and then we end up beating N.C. State by a run, and the game obviously this morning against Kentucky, another national seed. I mean, we accomplished an awful lot.”

The regular season schedule that O’Sullivan put together, between SEC and non-conference games, combined with the postseason gauntlet the Gators had to run, was the strongest in college baseball. While Florida entered the NCAA Tournament ranked 30th in the RPI, a figure that ranks teams based upon wins, losses, and strength of schedule for selection into the field, the Gators performance since Sunday, May 26, when the final automatic bids were earned at the various conference tournaments, has pushed them 21 spots higher than they were when the tournament began according to WarrenNolan.com, a website that continues to track RPI once the NCAA Tournament has begun.

“Like I said last year, it’s heartbreaking, any time you lose a game to end the year, especially in Omaha,” said senior Tyler Shelnut. “…It’s going to be heartbreaking and I’m just super proud of my teammates and the rest of this group who pushed through a lot to get here, I mean, a lot. This whole year was pretty hard on all of us. So being here was a huge accomplishment.”

The toughest schedule in the country made these Gators a tougher out than anyone thought, but that doesn’t mitigate the pain.

“There’s been a lot of ups and downs. Our players persevered through a lot of different tough moments. Awfully proud of our team. But this time of year it’s difficult,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s like you’re going full speed in a sprint and all of a sudden it just comes to an end just like that.”

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Leif Skodnick - World Baseball Network