It was quite the run once again for the Sunshine State, this time in baseball.
Back in April, I asked, “Is Florida a basketball state?”
Florida Atlantic University and the University of Miami came close to playing for a Division I national title in college basketball.
I wrote that a pair of schools in the Sunshine State actually did win a basketball national championship this past season. The Nova Southeastern University men’s team won the Division II national title and the Northwest Florida State College women’s basketball team won the junior college national championship.
So now I ask, “Is Florida a baseball state?”
Prior to the start of the College World Series, I noted an article written by MaxPreps about the number of players on each of the eight rosters who played high school baseball in the state of Florida.
The Sunshine State was well represented in Omaha as seven of the eight teams had at least one player and there was a total of 48 players overall.
Plus, there were actually two national runners-up, a national champion, and a national semifinalist in Florida this past baseball season.
The University of Florida baseball team made a run all the way to the CWS championship game before falling to LSU in game three of the Best-of-3 series.
It was a great season for head coach Kevin O’Sullivan and the Gators, who set a program record for wins (54) and finished as NCAA Division-I national runners-up.
The Gators also set single-season team records in home runs (145), strikeouts (725), strikeouts per nine (10.6) and offensive hit-by-pitches (90).
UF captured its 16th SEC Regular-Season Championship including the sixth under O’Sullivan, who was named the NCAA Division I Southeast Region Coach of the Year, as announced by the American Baseball Coaches Association on Wednesday.
In Monday’s postgame, Sully talked about how hard it is just to get to Omaha, noting how intense the regionals were at home and having to win three in a row to advance to the Gainesville Super Regionals and then beating a good South Carolina team to get to the CWS.
They also walked-off against Virginia in their first game at the CWS, played three one-run games, then lost an extra inning game to LSU in game one of the championship series.
“So, yeah, it’s been quite the journey,” O’Sullivan said. “And I’m confident, with the players we’ve got coming back and the new players we’ve got coming in, that we’ll have an opportunity to come back out next year.”
Just south of Gainesville in Ocala, the College of Central Florida baseball team won its first junior college national championship in program history.
However, the Patriots (56-7) lost their second game of the JUCO World Series and won four elimination games to win the title. They were down to their final out before rallying to defeat Wabash Valley College (Mount Carmel, IL), 19-12, in 12 innings.
Each time, the No. 1 team in the country rallied.
“Needless to say, we were pretty excited after being down two with two outs in the ninth inning in the Thursday night game,” said COCF coach Marty Smith. “With nobody on, we rallied to tie it and then won in the longest game in JUCO World Series history in five hours and 19 minutes. Then on Friday night, we beat Weatherford (TX), 14-13, to get us into the final game. Weatherford had beaten us on Monday night by the run rule so that was a challenge. Then we scored nine in the first in the championship game against Wabash and won the championship, 13-6, so it was a pretty big relief to know we had the number one seed target on our back and lived up to the expectations.”
Smith said the key to winning it all “was basically just playing good baseball.”
“Not feel like we had to do anything special,” he said. “We were the most talented team out there, so we just had to play well and we’d be fine. And that’s pretty much what we did.”
That talent includes future SEC players John Marant, who recently committed to Georgia and led the state in hitting (.434), and Cam Schuelke (9-1, 8 saves), who Smith said was the “best closer we’ve had in school history,” who signed with Mississippi State.
Marant was named a first team NJCAA DI All-American, while Schuelke was an honorable mention selection. They were one of three Patriots to make the NJCAA All-America Team.
Freshman Edwin Toribio, who missed the state tournament due to a broken hand, made Second Team Infield. The Mid-Florida Conference Player of the Year hit 20 HR and had 75 RBI while hitting .403/.437/.719.
After making it to the JUCO World Series in 2022 and coming up short, Smith can relate to UF just how difficult it is to win a natty.
“The Gators certainly have nothing to be ashamed of,” he said. “It’s incredibly hard to put things together and all the pieces fall into place. Sometimes you need some superhuman efforts out of your pitching staff and we got that out in Grand Junction and it just seemed like Florida needed to get a little bit more out of their starters to be able to piece their bullpen together enough to outscore LSU. Pretty sure those two teams will be matching up late in the season for the next many years.”
A little over two weeks ago Rollins College, which is located in Winter Park, played for the NCAA Division II title.
A late rally by the Tars fell short in the championship game as they lost to No. 1 Angelo State (San Angelo, TX), 6-5, to finish the season 42-19.
It was the longest run in program history for Rollins College and they also set team records with 687 hits (previous 655 in 2010), 127 doubles (tie with 1998), 84 home runs (tie with 1998), 449 RBI (previous 434 in 1994).
Actually, Florida is a baseball state when you think of Division II national champions.
Florida Southern, which is located in Lakeland, has won nine national titles in baseball (1971-72, 1975, 1978, 1981, 1985, 1988, 1995, 2005), which is the most all-time in D-II, while the University of Tampa (1992-93, 1998, 2006-07, 2013, 2015, 2019) is second with eight.
The fourth team from Florida to make a run was defending NAIA national champion Southeastern University, which is located in Lakeland.
Earlier this month, the Fire (58-6) lost 6-4 in the national semifinals to Westmont (Calif.), which then defeated host Lewis-Clark State (Idaho), 7-6, in the NAIA national championship game.
This was the sixth season of 50-plus wins in the last seven years for Southeastern with 2020 (COVID-19) being the exception.
Last year, Southeastern (59-4) knocked off the defending champion, the No. 4 seed, No. 2 seed, and had to play the host and 19-time champion Lewis-Clark State three times, winning twice to claim the program’s second national title.
“When the expectations are to win the last game of the year in your program, you feel like you’ve created something special,” said head coach Adrian Dinkel, who has led the Fire to two national championships and five straight appearances at the Avista NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho. “But that’s tough to put on any program where they feel like they have to win the last game of the year but they did a great job all year long.”
The University of Florida, Rollins College, College of Central Florida, and Southeastern University can all take a bow.
They all earned respect for baseball in the Sunshine State.