Your all-time favorite team should mean something beyond wins and losses. More often than not, your favorite team will be successful, but there is honor in falling short after giving everything you had. I know this is supposed to be a series of posts about college football, but my all-time favorite Florida team was the 2005 Gators baseball team.
I saw Matt LaPorta, Alan Horne, Brian Jeroloman, closer Connor Falkenbach and Gavin Dickey in his final chance at two-sport stardom. Of those guys, maybe LaPorta means something to you because he is raking for the Cleveland Indians. Dickey was a third-string quarterback who never got past Ingle Martin or Chris Leak. I was a junior in the spring of 2005, writing for The Alligator, working at WRUF and failing to get over an ex-girlfriend. When you don't have a lady friend, weekends at McKethan Stadium with a good ballclub and sorority girls hanging over the rail above the first base dugout can be good medicine.
UF started the season by losing the opener to Charleston Southern in 11 innings. When Miami came into Gainesville a week later, Falkenbach blew the opener, allowing three 9th inning runs to lose 9-7. In game two, UM again struck in the 9th, tying the game 1-1. In the 11th, Jeroloman hit a fly ball to left fielder Jon Jay. Dealing with the sun and the most abusive student section in the SEC, Jay lost the ball and by the time the ball hit the turf, Adam Davis scored to win the game. On Sunday, UF won 14-11 and the season had a much different complexion.
UF won the SEC Pennant with a season ending sweep at Vanderbilt. LaPorta, in his sophomore season, hit 26 homers and had 79 RBI. Jeroloman was a catcher who could hit, batting .298 with 49 RBI. Horne led the Gators with 10 wins and Falkenbach's submarine delivery got a 3.15 ERA and nine saves in 51 appearances.
As is typical of UF, they quickly left the SEC Tournament but swept through the Regionals. That set up a Super Regionals series against FSU, who won the season series. You cannot imagine the hatred that came out of the left field bleachers. Not only was left field all students, but about 75 percent were tanked. (The renovations and "family friendly atmosphere" neutralized this.) In Game One, UF won 8-1 thanks to back-to-back-to-back homers in the 5th by Jeroloman, Brandon McArthur and Brian Leclerc. The last homer had the added bonus of FSU's Jack Rye running full speed into the right field fence, thinking he had a step on the ball.
For Game Two, the stadium was jumping and the students wanted blood. Another Leclerc homer started the Gators with a four-run 1st inning. The Gators led 8-3 in the 9th, but FSU would not die easily. They started the inning with a homer and walk. Horne was removed from the game, but decided to walk off in style, only getting the crowd more excited. One more run would score, but it didn't matter as UF won 8-5. Florida would make their first trip to the College World Series since 1998.
Florida would lose in the Championship Series to a Texas team stacked with top prospects. But the 2005 team remains the best in UF history. In 2006, when I got to cover the team for WRUF, the Gators struggled with injuries and bad breaks, missing the NCAA Tournament. The team still meant a lot to me, but a new girlfriend and the stunning success of the basketball team was taking more of my time. I'm still pretty attached to the team and got to see Jeroloman and Falkenbach when I worked for the Toronto Blue Jays and both were in minor league spring training. On Alligator Army, I make a point of covering baseball because I always thought it never got the attention it deserved.
The 2006 football and basketball teams are also favorites of mine. My friends and I can still remember details of each championship game and following celebration on University Avenue. I expect some of you look fondly on the 1996 football team, but I hope there is some love for the sports that are under the radar.