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Florida Baseball: Previewing the NCAA Tournament's Gainesville Regional

It's no surprise Florida (45-16), after sharing the SEC regular season title and winning the SEC tournament, is the No. 2 seed in the nation as the 2011 NCAA Baseball Tournament begins. With that seed, the Gators will host NCAA Regional play starting this Friday against a familiar bunch of foes.

In the Gainesville regional, the one seed Gators will square off against the four seed Manhattan Jaspers (34-17) out of the MAAC, and in a clash of in-state rivals, two seed Miami Hurricanes (36-21) from the ACC will meet three seed Jacksonville Dolphins (36-22) from the A-Sun. You may recognize the 'Canes and Dolphins from earlier in the season. Not long ago, Jacksonville came to Gainesville and spanked the Gators 11-2; even earlier in the season, Miami came to Gainesville ranked 24th, and was swept by the then-No. 1 Gators. But in this double elimination tournament, anything can happen. So it's good to know your enemy, which is why we're previewing all the teams in the Gainesville Regional.

Let's start with the team we know the least and traveled the farthest.

No. 4 Manhattan College Jaspers:

What exactly is a Jasper? And what does it have to do with Manhattan? Well, the college isn't actually located in Manhattan, but in one of the New York's other boroughs, the Bronx. Appropriately enough for this preview, Manhattan's nickname is named from Brother Jasper of Mary, who brought baseball to the college. Brother Jasper is also said to have invented the famous, (or infamous) seventh inning stretch. And Florida fans may remember the Jaspers from the 2004 NCAA Basketball Tournament, when they upset the fifth-seeded Gators in the first round, 75-60.

But back to baseball. The Jaspers won the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference title 5-1 over the Siena Saints, sending them to the NCAA Tournament. Manhattan went 20-2 in league play, easily taking the MAAC regular season title. They are led by 31-year-old head coach Kevin Leighton, the MAAC Coach of the Year, who has a record of 166-100-1 in his six seasons at the college. Manhattan is familiar with SEC baseball teams after traveling to Knoxville and getting swept by the Vols. The Jaspers' last trip to the NCAA Tournament was in 2006, when Manhattan came to the Lincoln Regional and made it all the way to the Regional Final. The underdog Jaspers defeated tournament host national No. 2 Nebraska (which had Yankees pitcher Joba Chamberlain on its roster) and San Francisco to advance to the Regional Final, before dropping the elimination contest to Miami. Their only appearance before that was in 1957.

Manhattan is led by MAAC Pitcher of the Year John Soldinger. Soldinger went 10-2 on the year with a 2.34 ERA and six complete games. The Jaspers will send Soldinger to the mound Friday against the Gators. Offensively, the Jaspers are led by All-MAAC first teamers Mike McCann and Mark Onorati. McCann led Manhattan with a .365 batting average, and tied for the team lead in hits and triples, and on-base percentage. McCann also had six home runs and 38 RBIs for the Jaspers. Onorati batted .340 while leading the team in runs scored, stolen bases, and hit-by-pitches. He also had six home runs and 26 RBI, and struck out only five times on the season. Manhattan boasts four All-MAAC second-teamers, too: Ramon Ortega, Nick Camastro, Chad Salem, and Eric Luksis. Manhattan as a team is hitting .289 on the season and has an team ERA of 4.03. 

No. 3 Jacksonville University Dolphins:

This is the school that has drawn the ire of Gator fans everywhere. It seems like whenever Florida plays Jacksonville in any sport, I start having heart palpitations. The games are always close and the Dolphins have managed to pull out upsets (basketball and baseball) in the last year. Their appearance at the Gainesville Regional will mark the third time the Dolphins have made the trip in the NCAA tournament, with the last appearance in 2009. As noted above, their last appearance was JU's signature win, beating then fourth-ranked Florida 11-2.

Jacksonville, out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, received an at-large bid from the NCAA Selection committee. JU is making its14th tournament appearance and tenth under head coach Terry Alexander. Alexander is the winningest coach in Jacksonville history, going 694-550-2 during his 28 year tenure at the school.

Leading the Dolphins is sophomore first baseman Adam Brett Walker, the A-Sun Player of the Year and a Golden Spikes Award semifinalist. Walker is hitting .416 with 96 hits, 13 home runs, 22 doubles, 72 RBI, 65 runs scored, and is an unblemished 14-14 on stolen base attempts. Jacksonville also has All-Atlantic Sun OF Dan Gulbransen, who rapped out a .360 average with 80 hits, six homers, 49 RBIs, and 65 runs scored. Second baseman Taylor Ratliff leads the Dolphins with 24 stolen bases.

Junior pitcher Steve Eagerton, another All-A-Sun representative, lead the Dolphins with an 8-0 record. Southpaw Matthew Tomshaw leads JU with a 3.78 ERA; he'll start against Miami. They also have second team All-A-Sun closer Chris Anderson with a 4-2 record and 11 saves. Jacksonville has a team batting average of .313 (seven Dolphins have averages over .300) and a team ERA of 4.90.

No. 2 University of Miami Hurricanes:

The 18th-ranked Miami Hurricanes have a rich baseball history, winning the College World Series in 1982, 1985, 1999, and 2001. Their at-large bid marks an NCAA-record 39 straight years of making the NCAA tournament. Their selection to the Gainesville Regional also marks the third time in as many years Miami has to go through Gainesville to get to Omaha. The Hurricanes were eliminated both times by the Gators.

Miami plays in the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is arguably the best conference in the nation, and tied with the SEC with seven teams in the NCAA Tournament. The ACC also has three of the top five national seeds. The Hurricanes are led by Jim Morris. In his 18 years at the school, he has compiled a 812-319-3 record, winning two National Championships and advancing to the College World Series 11 times.

Sophomore outfielder Zeke DeVoss leads the Hurricanes with a .335 batting average; he compiled 67 hits, 53 walks, 55 runs scored and 32 stolen bases. Miami's top power threat is first-baseman Rony Rodriguez. Rodriguez leads the 'Canes with 12 homers, 15 doubles, and 19 RBIs. UM also has All-ACC second-teamer OF Nathan Melendres in their lineup, who hit .322 with 23 RBI and 23 stolen bases. Melendres also leads Miami with .989 fielding percentage with just one error on the season.

As for pitching, the Hurricanes Bryan Radziewski leads the team with a 9-2 record with 85 strikeouts in 84 2/3 innings. Sophomore Eric Whaley leads the team with a 2.55 ERA. The Hurricanes closer Daniel Miranda also has an impressive 14 saves and 29 strikeouts in 25 appearances. Miami has a team batting average of .275 and a team ERA of 3.28. The Hurricanes will send lefty Steven Ewing (7-2, 2.77 ERA) to the bump for Friday's Gainesville Regional opener against Jacksonville.

No. 1 Florida Gators

The second-ranked Gators will be making their 27th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and their fourth straight under head coach Kevin O'Sullivan. In fact, this year marks the first time Florida has hosted three straight NCAA Regionals. The Gators under O'Sullivan are 168-79 in his four seasons in Gainesville, and O'Sullivan is 6-0 in Regional play at McKethan Stadium since coming to UF four years ago. Florida is 30-9 at home during NCAA Regional and Super Regional play.

Florida received SEC's automatic bid into the NCAA tournament when they beat Vanderbilt 5-0 Sunday in the final of the SEC Baseball Tournament. The Southeastern Conference puts up a good argument against the ACC for the best conference in America with seven teams in the tournament. The SEC, more specifically the SEC East, has three of the eight nationally seeded teams.

Florida is led by SEC Player of the Year, Golden Spikes Award semifinalist, second team All-American, and National Player of the Year candidate Mike Zunino. Zunino boasts a .367 average with 15 home runs and 59 RBIs. He also has a team-high 19 doubles and 63 runs scored. The Gators matched a school record with six All-SEC selections. All-SEC outfielder Preston Tucker contributed a .308 average with 10 home runs and 54 RBIs. All-SEC righty Hudson Randall leads the Florida pitching staff with a 9-3 record and a 2.25 ERA. SEC All-Freshman pitcher Karsten Whitson (7-0, 2.53 ERA) leads the Gators with 74 strikeouts in 78 1/3 innings. First team All-SEC designated hitter Brian Johnson is still questionable for this weekend after sustaining a concussion. Johnson (8-3, 3.66 ERA) would also the third pitcher for the Gators during the Regionals. Florida has a team batting average of .306, with six starters batting over .300, and a team ERA of 2.99. The Gators will send Whitson to the mound against the Jaspers.

The first game between Miami and Jacksonville will start at noon and will be televised on ESPNU. Florida and Manhattan will start at 4 p.m. and will also be available on ESPNU.