Florida not ready to exhale just yet

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the moments after Florida's 9-8 victory over NC State on Sunday, Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan felt the expected elation from reaching the College World Series.

But there was some relief, too.

Not advancing to Omaha, Neb., for the third consecutive season would have been a monumental failure for a team that had been called one of the strongest in college baseball history by Collegiate Baseball. With eight players drafted in the first nine rounds, three All-Americans in the starting rotation, and the school's all-time postseason leader in hits, homers and RBIs on the roster, the Gators had to reach the CWS.

That's why O'Sullivan's shoulders felt a little looser Sunday evening.

"It's one thing to be the underdog and not have expectations, but it's another when there are expectations," he said as the Gators (47-18) prepared for their CWS opener against South Carolina (45-17) on Saturday. "It's not just the external people. You in turn start putting pressure on yourself and you feel the pressure of trying to get your team back to where they should be, supposedly.

"And then you get the draft as well.

"With the draft and the relief of just getting that over with and getting to Omaha, I'm looking forward to watching this team play as we move forward."

Florida reached the best-of-three CWS championship series against South Carolina last season but the Gamecocks swept the Gators to claim their second consecutive national championship. However, it was Florida that was a nearly unanimous preseason No. 1 selection this season, thanks to a stocked roster that included:

• Seven players named preseason All-Americans, including pitchers Hudson Randall, Brian Johnson and Karsten Whitson.

• Catcher Mike Zunino, the 2011 Southeastern Conference player of the year.

• Preston Tucker, the school's career postseason leader in nearly every offensive category, who returned for his senior season after being a 16th-round selection by Colorado in the 2011 draft.

• A total of seven position starters and nine pitchers from the 2011 team.

A national championship was already being hoisted upon the Gators' shoulders before Randall threw the first pitch against Cal State Fullerton in the season opener. And the team's hot start -- 23-2, which included a school-record 18-game winning streak -- only reinforced those expectations.

It didn't take long, though, before O'Sullivan and some of the players began to feel the strain, especially when the Gators went through injuries to center fielder Tyler Thompson (torn ACL), third baseman Josh Tobias (broken hamate bone), and pitchers Johnson (hamstring), Randall (arm fatigue), Whitson (arm fatigue) and Austin Maddox (tendinitis). Plus, the Gators went through a late-season lull in which they went 10-10.

"That [the championship expectations] was the thing that was hard for our team to deal with," O'Sullivan said. "It was one of those things that was the big elephant in the room. Nobody wanted to talk about it. It was kind of just there. It's hard to get to Omaha, No. 1, but to add to it that you're supposed to get there and there's so many things that can happen in this game that can keep you from getting to your ultimate destination -- it has not been an easy road."

Senior pitcher Greg Larson noticed some of the freshmen were struggling more than others, so he made sure he took some time for quick pep talks.

"Sometimes there's only so much you can say," Larson said. "Them as individuals just have to look past it. Sometimes it helps and sometimes it doesn't, but there were times where I tried to talked to individuals that were thinking a little bit too much.

"Coming in here as freshman, they're thrown onto a team who's got all these preseason rankings and all that. I think it definitely weighed on them a little bit, made them press a little bit at the beginning of the year."

O'Sullivan felt it, too, especially during the stretch from March 30 to April 29. The Gators lost two of three games in three of the five SEC series they played in that stretch, as well as games against North Florida and South Florida. O'Sullivan was pressing a bit, just like his players.

"Being around Kevin, I noticed he was a little more uptight than he would normally be," said Chip Howard, UF's senior associate athletic director for internal affairs. "I reached out to him and talked to him a little bit. We got a speaker in front of the team. There's lots of subtle things you can do to let them know, 'I'm here. We can help them and we understand.'"

Earl Suttle -- who works with colleges, universities and professional teams in addition to his work as a business consultant and motivational speaker -- talked to the team about managing expectations, and determining the difference between realistic and unrealistic expectations. It was a message similar to the one former NBA player Sidney Green delivered to the Gators' 2007 basketball team, which was trying to repeat as national champion, when it suffered a late-season slump. Green, whose son Taurean was the point guard, told the Gators they were playing tight, and that they needed to go out and have fun and play for themselves and each other.

The Gators lost the next game after Sidney Green's talk, but then ripped off 10 consecutive victories and claimed the national title.

"I talked to Kevin about it," Howard said. "We had a good baseball team, good players, good coaches. You couldn't let the expectations bury us, and they started to do that. We all have expectations and we all want the team to do great. The talk was good for both of us.

"I saw a change in Kevin right away. Sometimes it's a matter of being able to sit down and talk to somebody."

O'Sullivan said he appreciated Howard reaching out and admitted that helped him. So did spending time with his wife and young daughter at home, where he could forget about baseball for a while.

"You go home, and kind of those things put things in perspective for you, so it kind of alleviates some of your pressure," he said.

"You don't take your job home with you as much. For me, like I said, I think you learn something new every year. If you get to a point where you stop learning, obviously I think you're missing the boat, missing the point."

O'Sullivan never complained about the expectations placed on his team. He welcomed them. It means the program is in great shape and is among the national elite, which is the reason he was hired after Pat McMahon was fired following the 2007 season.

The players, while admitting the season was tougher than they might have expected, also are glad expectations were high. That beats heading into a season just hoping to make the postseason.

"At least you know you have things to shoot for," Johnson said. "You have goals."