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Crawford is Gators' self-made ace

Before Jonathon Crawford emerges on the McKethan Stadium mound shortly after 7 p.m. Friday, you must understand: Nothing about this was preordained.

The junior right-hander is the Florida Gators' ace, and he will throw the first pitch of 2013 against Duke, and that itself is victory No. 1 of the new season.

Look around the nation's mounds on Friday. Take a good, long stare at the names. You'll see Highly touted and Blue-chipper and Coveted. Those are all the kids who have been fit for this job since high school. Those are the kids who typically become collegiate aces. That was not Crawford.

"He wasn't highly recruited out of high school," Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan says. "He had to work his way up the ladder and earn everything here. He's self-made."

It's not that Crawford slithered his way from Okeechobee, Fla., to Gainesville with nobody noticing.

He was a late-round draft pick of the Marlins out of high school. He had some talent and some projection. Florida saw him at a showcase the summer after his junior high school season and liked him. Florida International showed interest, as did some junior colleges.

But that was it. He had the eyes of the locals but not the attention of the country.

Whether it was the increased demands and exterior pressure of big-time college baseball or some interior parasite that gnawed away at him, Crawford struggled as a freshman at Florida. He worried about outcomes he couldn't dictate. He was young and hadn't learned that wide eyes are detrimental, that narrow, focused vision is part of the secret to success in the SEC.

He saw five appearances and 3 2/3 innings that 2011 season. "It wasn't very fun at all," Crawford recalls on the eve of Opening Day. "I wanted to be out on the field and contributing to the team's success, but I couldn't really throw a strike. [The coaches] were forced to sit me on the bench."

The Gators went to the College World Series that year, but Crawford didn't; he was left off the roster. So when his teammates flew west to Omaha, Crawford flew north to begin his summer ball season in the Northwoods League. "He was very mature and didn't complain about it," O'Sullivan says.

Crawford spent the summer in Madison, Wis., piling up innings and forgetting the frailties of his freshman year. "That was a good summer for me," Crawford says. "I was able to just clear my head and stop worrying about everything I couldn't control."

When he returned to campus in the fall, the coaching staff had a recommendation: Lower your arm slot just a notch. Crawford has always thrown from an over-the-top slot, and he gained confidence in his pitches and command over the summer. Now they wanted him to change? All these reps he accrued over the summer, now he's going to try something that will inevitably feel unnatural? Yes, precisely.

"I dropped to a high-to-mid three-quarter slot, and from the beginning it felt really weird, like I was trying to throw sidearm," Crawford says. "I had doubts about switching at first, but I ended up trusting the coaches."

Crawford trusted the coaches because despite feeling foreign and uncomfortable, he saw the potential. Immediately, his fastball started to move, running to his arm side and creating a little sink. "We moved his hand just a little bit away from his head," O'Sullivan says. "That gave him the sink and kept him off some barrels."

There was a casualty of the mechanical tweak. Crawford's curveball had to be put down, as the lower slot wasn't conducive to creating the 12-to-6 spin he needed on the pitch. Instead, he picked up a slider -- a much more natural pitch for a three-quarter slot -- and that came along as he logged the repetitions. He'd throw a lot in the bullpen and on flat ground. When he needed to give his arm some rest, he'd go into the batting cages and stand in front of a mirror, going through his new delivery, envisioning himself becoming the pitcher that stared back at him.

As Crawford added sink to his fastball, he didn't have to sacrifice velocity. He'll now run his two-seamer into the mid-90s, creating a heavy pitch that turns bats into feeble twigs of aluminum. But more importantly, the change freed Crawford to attack all four quadrants of the zone because he no longer needed to wonder if the ball would actually make it there.

"As soon as I started throwing bullpens, I felt like my command went through the roof," Crawford says. "I felt like I could pinpoint the ball wherever I wanted to."

Crawford's sophomore season was the breakthrough. He made 19 appearances and 14 starts for the Gators, striking out 73 hitters in 77 2/3 innings with a 3.13 ERA. And he made his first postseason start a memorable one, throwing a no-hitter against Bethune-Cookman at home.

From his first start of the season against UCF, the foreign delivery was no longer so, and O'Sullivan saw something in Crawford. He saw the maturity in real time.

"It was a TV game at home, and UCF was a tournament team that year," O'Sullivan said. "They had seven left-handers in their lineup, and he consistently threw his fastball and breaking ball for strikes. I knew the light was on."

This has all led Crawford to another unfamiliar ground. There are expectations now, greedy little voices that have never been perched on Crawford's shoulder quite like this, asking him to be a leader, a dominator, an ace. There is the impending MLB draft in June, in which Crawford could be a first-round pick, and with each start that passes this spring, he'll feel the hot breath of draft day and its pressures on the back of his neck a little more.

But Crawford no longer carries the naiveté of an overwhelmed freshman. He understands what this season represents. He does. But he believes he's found a mental place where his vision is now narrow and focused. "I try to stay away from the draft rankings and that kind of stuff," Crawford says. "That can get in your head and you can get selfish. I focus on having good 'pens and good outings."

Good outings. Enough of those come draft day, and the man who made himself a Gator will be making himself something more.

Implementing the Horton culture

During the best of George Horton's Cal State Fullerton days, his players had an edge. Certain players were aptly described as "Fullerton guys." When they dressed, they put on their uniforms and then a veil of competitive confrontation. Their engines seemed to run on friction.

"I played for and coached with [Texas coach] Augie [Garrido], and the tradition was passed on at Fullerton," Horton, in his fifth year at Oregon, said from his office in Eugene. "That type of player, hungry, driven, that was nurtured in the culture."

Horton won the 2004 College World Series at Fullerton with those players, and when he was hired to run the reinstated Oregon program beginning with the 2009 season, he moved north and tried to bring that culture with him. It was a tough jump. The Ducks went 14-42 in his first season. Last season, they got to the super regional before losing at home to Kent State.

"It's been a long haul to implement the culture and work ethic," Horton says. "But last year's team was fantastic. We didn't even go to Omaha, but it's the most fun I've ever had around a group, from top to bottom."

At Fullerton, Horton had certain factors working in his favor. For all of their great tradition and success, the Titans don't have the best facilities or nicest campus or big-time football atmosphere or private university prestige. It was more natural for Horton to craft that chip his teams carried around. At Oregon, there's Phil Knight and plush scenery and pristine academic and athletic centers. Getting kids to be "grinders" in that environment can be a challenge.

As the Ducks, No. 6 in the USA Today coaches' poll, begin the 2013 season this weekend at Hawaii, Horton continues to pitch his Fullerton culture, hoping it soon becomes Oregon culture.

"We have so much to offer here as far as stuff," Horton says. "Fancy shoes, fancy uniforms, a relationship with Nike. But if kids come here because of the 'fluff,' as I call it, that's not going to win championships. If the fluff is the cherry on top, fine, but you can't be here because of that. We need players who win because of mental toughness and want to be on the best college baseball team in the world."

Opening weekend at Reckling Park

Wayne Graham has always been a good judge of talent. Talent was a big reason why he took the Rice job in 1992: Houston is a fertile recruiting ground.

So as No. 17 Rice opens the 2013 season at home against No. 7 Stanford -- one of the most intriguing series of opening weekend -- Graham has a good feel for the individual talent level of his club. What he doesn't have a great feel for is the whole product.

"Sometimes it takes as late as midseason to figure that out, sometimes it's only six weeks," Graham said over the phone. "But by the time you get to conference play, you better know."

Graham likes how his rotation will stack up this weekend, with Austin Kubitza, Jordan Stephens and John Simms, three right-handers, scheduled to face the Cardinal. He loves the potential of his defense, in the infield especially. And he has some hope for his offense given the return of second baseman Christian Stringer, the preseason Conference USA Player of the Year, and the work Shane Hoelscher has done to retool his approach.

Yet this weekend is a test for Graham's Owls. He wants to see how much work is ahead. "This weekend won't make or break us," he says. "But it will teach us a lot."

The Oxford 'system'

There was no greater place for a young Mike Bianco to be than Baton Rouge, La. As a player in the late-'80s and then an assistant coach in the mid-'90s, Bianco got to live in the back pocket of legendary Tigers coach Skip Bertman. He watched Bertman's daily interactions with players, how he'd push on the right buttons and back off the right throttles. It was an art form.

"He was the best at getting players to play their best when it mattered most," says Bianco, in his 13th season as Ole Miss' head coach. "He had a great touch, a great feel."

In five seasons on Bertman's staff, Bianco went to Omaha with the Tigers four times and won three championships. It was the peak of LSU's stampede through the decade, and Bianco learned what blocks build the best winners.

"The postseason success, that comes from [Bertman]," Bianco says. "It doesn't happen at one moment. It happens over a season and over a career. He was building a foundation all year, and it would turn into a self-esteem machine. Players would be full of confidence and believe they could play with anybody and beat anybody. He called it 'the system.'"

Bianco has tried to emulate that system with his Rebels. Ole Miss, ranked No. 13 by Baseball America, hosts No. 14 TCU this weekend, and it's the beginning of a season Bianco hopes could be a program-changer. The Rebels hosted four straight regionals from 2005 to '08, and they've played in four super regionals in the past eight seasons. But Bianco has yet to experience the College World Series in Rebel red.

"We've been close here, but it's about finishing," Bianco says. Ole Miss has quality arms, with right-hander Bobby Wahl leading the rotation and Brett Huber at the back end of the bullpen. There's some depth in between those two. Where the Rebels will get their runs isn't quite as certain.

"Offensively, we have a good club," Bianco says. "The question is, who's going to be the star? Who's going to have a big year and get us to Omaha?"

Prospect Watch: Mark Appel, RHP, Stanford

Each week we'll feature a brief look at one top national prospect, with insights from coaches and pro talent evaluators.

If we're going to talk about prospects and the draft, there's no other place to start this season than with Appel. The Stanford right-hander was the No. 8 pick in the 2012 draft but decided to return to Stanford for his senior season rather than sign with the Pirates. He'll pitch on Friday at Rice -- a homecoming for the Houston native.

Appel, 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, is in the preseason discussion for the No. 1 overall pick this June. He has a plus fastball with mid-to-upper 90s velocity, which is offset with a firm, sharp slider in the upper 80s. Appel also has decent feel for a changeup. His ceiling is a front-of-the-rotation starter in the big leagues, and with his age and experience he is a candidate to move quickly through a system. He's in Tier 1 of the college arms, along with Sean Manaea of Indiana State, Ryne Stanek of Arkansas and others.

"We have to stand up and compete against Appel," Rice's Graham said. "You just have to foul off pitches and make him work. Just try to extend him, and you have a chance to get him out of there in the sixth inning. If you fight off the tough, two-strike pitches, a pitcher can lose a little bit of confidence because his best stuff isn't getting by you."

Omaha begins its journey to June

At 2 p.m. local time on Friday, John O'Connor will be trying to find a computer. His son, Brian, is the head coach of Virginia, and the Cavaliers have an afternoon game at East Carolina to kick off their 2013 season. A resident of Omaha, Neb., O'Connor needs to see his Cavs start a new season. O'Connor and his wife, Barb, try to watch every Virginia game during the season.

"Last year, we went back [to Virginia] for the opening series," John O'Connor told me the other day. "We're going to go out in April this year."

The early spring in Omaha is cold and blustery, and the local teams head west or south. The romanticized home of college baseball and its ballpark are quiet on opening weekend. Or so we think.

"It's amazing how many people follow Brian and want to know how he's doing," O'Connor says. "I run into them at the grocery story, anyplace really, and they ask about him. College baseball is big-time here."

It's easy to view Omaha like Augusta, Ga., a place defined by one iconic event per year. And that is true. O'Connor mentions that every year around Father's Day, his three sons who are spread across the country come home, and they all go to the College World Series together. He's already looking forward to that four months from now.

But it's not entirely true. Omaha isn't just a two-week baseball town. As ballparks fill up around the country this weekend, a lot of Midwestern folks will be following on their computers, shaking off the chill of winter like the rest of us.

Today in Omaha: High of 39 degrees, scattered snow flurries, 121 days until CWS Game 1 (as of Feb. 14)

Teddy Mitrosilis is an editor for ESPN.com. He played college baseball at Long Beach (Calif.) City College and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, graduating with a degree in journalism. You can follow him on Twitter here.