Florida baseball coach Kevin O'Sullivan is preparing for the start of his sixth season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Over the past five years, Gator baseball coach Kevin O’Sullivan and his staff have built one of the country’s winningest programs.
Florida has made three consecutive trips to the College World Series for the first time in the program’s existence. As O’Sullivan prepares to open his sixth season on Feb. 15 against Duke, the core of the group that led Florida to Omaha the past three years is gone.
The Gators said goodbye to players such as catcher Mike Zunino, pitcher Hudson Randall, shortstop Nolan Fontana, outfielder Preston Tucker, closer Austin Maddox, two-way standout Brian Johnson and lefty reliever Steven Rodriguez, who made his big-league debut with the Dodgers less than three months after leaving UF.
That talent drain is enough to make some coaches consider leaving, too.
But O’Sullivan hung around, knowing that while his 2013 ballclub will be much different from the one that led the nation with 75 home runs a year ago – topped by Zunino’s 19 round-trippers – he still has ample good players to pencil into the lineup card.
“Obviously we’ve got a lot of new faces,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I do like our pitching. I like our defense. Obviously our offense is going to be young. We certainly have enough to be successful.”
The Gators are young, with only two seniors on the roster: infielder Cody Dent and infielder/outfielder Vickash Ramjit.
Still, O’Sullivan is confident he has a good combination of experience and youth.
There’s a strong group of sophomores who got significant playing time last season, led by second baseman Casey Turgeon, outfielder/pitcher Justin Shafer, infielder Josh Tobias and catcher Taylor Gushue. On the mound, juniors Jonathon Crawford and Karsten Whitson are back to anchor the top of the rotation.
“Now it’s time for these players to make a name for themselves,’’ O’Sullivan said. “Our personnel is different. It’s certainly can be as successful, we’re just going to have to do it a different way.”
In baseball parlance that means less reliance on the long ball. It means good pitching and defense supplemented by an offense that can manufacture runs rather than rely on home runs.
Even with players like Zunino and Tucker knocking baseballs out of the park regularly the past few years, O’Sullivan never wavered from stocking players that could win without the home runs.
“Everything as far as recruiting is concerned, from our standpoint it’s always been pitching and defense,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I do feel good about that. I feel good about our offense. There are just going to be some ups and downs. Our offense is going to be different this year.”
The pitching staff is young but has plenty of arms in guys like Kennan Kish, Johnny Magliozzi, Corey Stump and Ryan Harris. Newcomer Richie Martin is expected to start at shortstop as a freshman. Outfielder Harrison Bader could do the same in center field if he keeps playing the way he has early in camp.
There are still many questions to be answered before the end of camp, primarily deciding on a closer and No. 3 starter. First base and right field remain uncertain.
Ramjit is in the mix at both first and the outfield. Regardless of where he plays, Ramjit isn’t concerned about a significant drop-off in the program.
“I think the talent is there. We’re going to compete and the young guys have been working really hard,’’ he said. “They’ve opened our eyes a lot; we have a lot to look forward, too. At first, we didn’t know what to expect but I feel like now everyone is ready to go.”
O’Sullivan sounds like he is.
“I think we have a decent feel for where we’re at right now,’’ he said.
(Photo: Vickash Ramjit)