It’s Friday Night Lights but on the diamond.
The Gators will open their season against Marshall in a three-game series starting Friday.
UF is coming off of a disappointing 2019 season in which the squad failed to make it past regionals. The Gators had made the College World Series four straight years prior to 2019, winning it all in 2017.
Junior pitcher and first baseman Jordan Butler is looking to get back to Omaha, and he said it all starts with Florida’s opener against Marshall.
He spoke on Tuesday about the season opener on Friday, along with the benefit it will have to some of the younger players on the team.
“Everything is a lot different when the lights go on and it’s spring,” Butler said. “I’m excited to see how the freshmen react to the big stage.”
Butler also said it’s important for all of the freshmen to get thrown into the action early this year.
Youth and inexperience, especially on the mound, was one of the main reasons UF failed to book a flight to Omaha last season. Florida’s offense was stout, posting a cumulative .284 batting average. However, its pitchers sputtered in big-time moments, registering a 5.37 ERA, the second-worst in the SEC.
Pitcher Trey Van Der Weide has the opportunity to provide leadership to the pitching staff.
The redshirt-senior transfer from the University of South Carolina Upstate has three years of Division I pitching experience. He said he transferred to Florida to get a chance to go to the College World Series, and he’s felt that energy from the team since the first day of practice.
“The first or second practice we broke it down like, ‘yeah, on Omaha, one, two, three,’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Dang, we got a shot.’”
Van Der Weide’s goal to get to Nebraska doesn’t alter his approach to pitching. To him, it’s still a kid’s game.
“I don’t really care about starting, relieving, closing, any of that stuff,” he said. “Just going out there and playing baseball just like when I was a little kid.”
Coach Kevin O’Sullivan takes a more adult approach as coach of the team. He said he’s anxious to get the season started.
O’Sullivan, entering his 13th season as Gators coach, said he’s not superstitious. He also said he makes himself drive by the Gators’ new stadium site every day, so that statement is up for discussion.
What he’s certain about, however, is his approach to opening weekend. He said it’s about gauging the talent on the roster and evaluating the starting lineup and rotation.
“Bottom line is, the lineup is not going to be the same at the end of the year as in the beginning,” he said. “I’m just trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together to give us the best opportunity to be successful this weekend.”
Whether you want to compare making lineups and rotations to puzzles or chess, O’Sullivan made it clear both are a work in progress.
“I do like our roster,” he said. “But the fact of the matter is, we got to go out there and we got to build.”
Follow Dylan on Twitter @dylanoshea24 and contact him at [email protected].