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Florida Gators Weekend Preview: Baseball's boys of spring return, with history as their goal

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The Gators have never had as good a chance to win a national championship.

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Hopefully, from here on in, the Weekend Preview will run on early Friday afternoons, leading into a Weekend Open Thread that coincides with the beginning of the first Florida contest of the weekend. Hopefully.

Baseball begins a quest for history

Put simply: If Florida's 2015-16 baseball season does not end with a national championship trophy hoisted in Omaha, it will be viewed by many Gators fans, if not most, as a failure.

Those are the stakes. That is the opportunity.

Florida comes into this season as roundly praised as any collegiate baseball team I can recall. This appears in the first paragraph of the Gators' own touting of their being picked to win the SEC:

The Gators are the consensus No. 1 team according to the six major collegiate baseball preseason polls: Baseball America, Collegiate Baseball, D1Baseball, the National Collegiate Baseball Writers (NCBWA), Perfect Game and USA Today.

Four of seven D1Baseball predictors have the Gators winning it all. Two of Baseball America's four concur, and Florida's predicted to get the No. 1 overall seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament in their eyes. USA TODAY poll voters cast 21 first-place votes for Florida, and 10 for every other team combined. Perfect Game's preseason roundtable asked writers to pick Florida or the field to win the national title — and two people still picked Florida to prevail!

That's the sort of respect the Gators get for combining a precocious run to the College World Series in 2015 with a prodigiously talented 2016 roster. There might be a legitimate debate between Florida's A.J. Puk and Buddy Reed for the No. 1 pick in the 2016 MLB Draft, and the Gators might have as many as three players go in the top 15 or so, between Puk, Reed, and the perpetually unsung Logan Shore, who will be Florida's Friday starter again.

And Peter Alonso will get drafted early, and many members of Florida's freshman and sophomore classes already were, once, and the Gators return their entire weekend rotation and six of nine position players, and ... yeah, it's a lot.

The Gators do have to replace Harrison Bader, Richie Martin, and Josh Tobias in the lineup and the field, and find a reliever who can consistently do what Taylor Lewis did. But those are more or less Florida's only concerns, and the talent is there to address them. The talent, under Kevin O'Sullivan, is always there: This is a team that can quietly lose Tyler Deel, Taylor Lane, Brett Morales, and John Sternagel to transfers and not miss a beat, because Jonathan India, Jackson Kowar, Deacon Liput, and Brady Singer were the commits who essentially replaced them.

What's been missing in the last decade, when Florida had one of the most talented teams in college baseball history in 2012 and when the Gators were among the preseason favorites to win a title after being the runner-up in 2006, is making good on everything in Omaha. The precocious 2011 Gators, like their 2015 descendants, couldn't quite get over the hump against equally talented competition; the 2006 and 2012 squads cracked under pressure, with 2006's Gators doing so all season and the 2012 team wilting in the Nebraska heat.

O'Sullivan has been through Omaha misery three times now, and he's been through bringing back the preseason favorite before, too. He should be as ready to guide the Gators to a title as he will ever be without the experience of actually winning one, and he's got the nation's best team by deafening acclamation.

All that is left is for Florida to actually make the history that everyone anticipates. That begins tonight. Pity poor Florida Gulf Coast, subsumed by the narrative.

But the Gators have work to do.

Men's hoops headed to South Carolina

Florida's been an up-and-down outfit for the better part of the year on the court, but it could make a statement and nearly seal its NCAA Tournament participation on Saturday at South Carolina.

The Gamecocks are, well, game for anything and anyone, a scrappy bunch that had begun the season 15-0. The meat of the SEC schedule has winged South Carolina, though: Frank Martin's charges are 6-6 since, and have been downright befuddling in February, winning at Texas A&M and losing at Missouri.

Of course, they've also beaten Vanderbilt and Alabama at home, two teams with wins over Florida this year. So if the Gators think they're in for an easy ride in Saturday's matinee at Colonial Life Arena, they ought to think again.

Softball looking to continue brilliant run

Florida's top-ranked softball team may have bulldozed its competition so far, but it's a long way from having the best start in program history. The Gators have been undefeated through February in three of the last five years (2011, 2014, and 2015), after all, and went a staggering 21-0 with multiple big wins last season, en route to their second consecutive national championship.

The in-game dominance, though? That is nearly unprecedented.

Through the six games Florida played leading up to its participation in this weekend's Diamond 9 Classic in Orlando, the Gators outscored their opponents 54-1, allowing just 10 hits and posting one no-hitter by Alesia Ocasio. That's better than things began in the three previous unbeaten Februaries: In 2015, Florida's scoring margin at 6-0 was 62-7, In 2014, it was 40-13, and in 2011, it was 58-3. 2012's and 2013's Gators also went 6-0 to start, but the 2012 team did so against weak competition; in 2013, Florida topped top-15 teams Oregon, Cal, and Arizona in Arizona, which makes the slightly "less" impressive 53-13 scoreline the Gators mustered look better.

Florida's opening schedule this year wasn't as rugged as that 2013 team's, but Michigan did take the Gators to three games in the Women's College World Series championship series last year, and came into this season as the nation's No. 2 team.

It's just that the No. 1 team seems to be a lot better, maybe as good as it's ever been. Dusting UAB 8-0 on Friday afternoon is just the latest bit of evidence.

Men's golf hosting Gator Invitational

J.C. Deacon has Florida's men's golf program back on track to competing for national titles. Even he might be a bit surprised by the speed at which the Gators seem to be rising, though: Florida is No. 5 nationally after a strong start to the spring season, up from the fringes of the top 25 at the outset of the fall season, and a dark horse to compete at the NCAA Championships.

It's almost all because of the youth movement Deacon (and fantastic assistant John Handrigan) engineered with some excellent recruiting. Freshman Sam Horsfield leads the Gators in scoring average and has four top-five finishes and a win, and Florida's Latin American players, Argentinian sophomore Alejandro Tosti and Venezuelan freshman Jorge Garcia, have each carded opening-round 64s this year.

They've been able to push junior Ryan Orr, who has two top-five finishes, and senior Richard Donegan, who has one, and they've allowed Deacon to mix up his lineups to reward form. Florida's yet to use the same golfer as its No. 1 in consecutive tournaments, much less use the same quintet twice.

That bodes well for the Gators' chances of winning their home tournament for the first time since 2011, even with vaunted No. 3 Florida State in town.

Swimming and diving finishing up SEC Championships

It's not just Caeleb Dressel who made waves for Florida at the SEC Championships this week. Florida's men are nearing another conference crown, while the women could charge through the pack on Friday and Saturday.

Florida's men's team widened its lead on Thursday, thanks to, among other things, another win from Dressel in the 100 fly, and is going to be hard to catch if the Gators swim as well as they customarily do during relay finals. The women sit further from the front in fourth, but could make up a lot of ground on the lead triad of Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Georgia all at once with a huge close, given that just 73 points separate those three teams.

We'll have a lot more on the results from the week on Sunday and Monday.

Gymnastics looking to show something at Missouri

Florida's No. 2-ranked women's gymnastics team doesn't have all that much to prove for the rest of its regular season. The Gators have the nation's top score on the year and look to be no worse than 1B to No. 1 Oklahoma's 1A, with only a rocky road outing at Georgia keeping Florida from being out in front of the 2014 co-national champions.

But that faltering on the road at Georgia points to the Gators' one weakness: They haven't been as good away from home as they'd like, nor nearly as good as Oklahoma has been. Florida had a 197.075 at Auburn, but that's the Gators' highest score away from the O'Connell Center in 2016, and their only one of better than 196.825; Oklahoma's popped scores of 197.925, 197.675, and 197.550 away from Norman.

If Florida's going to win a fourth consecutive NCAA title, it will obviously need to perform at a high level outside of Gainesville. An opportunity to do that awaits in CoMo.

Women's hoops seeks road win at Georgia

Florida's women's team hit 20 wins by knocking off Vanderbilt in Gainesville on Thursday. The Gators will want to hit blackjack agains the Red and Black on Sunday when they visit Georgia.

The Gators' 20-win season is their sixth under Amanda Butler, one shy of the record seven overseen by Carol Ross, and a school record 25 wins isn't out of the question. And if the Gators want to get there, this roadie in Athens would be huge: A win there means wins over SEC also-ran LSU in Baton Rouge and NCAA Tournament contender Auburn in Gainesville would get the Gators to 23 wins, and make getting just two combined wins from the SEC and NCAA Tournaments all Florida needs to drive to 25 on the season.

Georgia, though, is no slouch: The Bulldogs upended Florida in Gainesville earlier this season in the Gators' first game after a 2-0 week with road wins over Tennessee and Mississippi.

Lacrosse hits road to face UNC

Florida's women's lacrosse team has done quite a few things well in its brief existence. One thing it hasn't done well? Play North Carolina.

The Gators are 1-6 against the Tar Heels in their six years as a varsity team, and  their lone win came in a 5-3 defensive struggle in Chapel Hill in 2013. Florida comes into a Saturday skirmish at UNC as the nation's No. 8 team, but the Tar Heels boast the No. 2 slot.

Feeding freshman star Shayna Pirreca might be a good idea for the Gators: She's second on the in goals with six, and has done her scoring on just nine shots, giving her a slightly better shooting percentage than Mollie Stevens, whose eight goals on 13 shots lead Florida in both categories.

The rest

Men's tennis plays at Ohio State on Sunday. ... Florida's women's golf team opens play at the Allstate Sugar Bowl Intercollegiate Golf Championship on Sunday. The three-day tournament runs through Tuesday. ... Florida's women's tennis teams and track teams are off this weekend.