We should be posting something like this — a Weekend Roundup or Review — on Mondays going forward...
Gators rally to take series from ‘Canes on diamond
Through one game of last weekend’s three-game set, it looked for the first time in half a decade like the Miami Hurricanes might both have a better baseball team than the Florida Gators and beat the Gators on the field.
That was the impression left by Friday night’s dismal 5-2 defeat, in which the ‘Canes taxed Tyler Dyson early and chased him after four innings and Miami starter Evan McKendry tied up the Gators at the plate, yielding just four hits and striking out nine in seven innings of work. Florida never led, despite scratching out single runs in the fourth and sixth innings to erase a 2-0 lead, and the Gators looked lost at the plate, sloppy in the field, and far from dominant on the mound.
On Saturday and Sunday, they roared back to dispel that perception and dispatch their in-state rival.
After Miami’s Raymond Gil opened the scoring on Saturday by sending a Tommy Mace pitch deep to score three in the top of the sixth inning, Florida clawed back a run in the bottom with a sacrifice fly from Kendrick Calilao, then took the lead for good in the seventh on a bases-clearing triple from Wil Dalton and an RBI double by Calilao.
The Gators would tack on four more runs in the latter stages on Saturday, but Dalton’s big swing was what swung the game — and likely the series. On Sunday, Florida starter Jack Leftwich scattered five hits and fanned seven over five innings, Calilao — celebrating his 19th birthday — had a homer and an RBI single to bring his total to six RBI on the weekend, and closer Nolan Crisp struck out two in a perfect ninth for the fourth save in four chances of his young career and preserve Florida’s 4-1 win.
The comeback earned the Gators their fifth series win over Miami in as many years, and continued a span of dominance of in-state rivals under Kevin O’Sullivan that is essentially unmatched in program history.
But the way the Gators got to their seemingly annual series win over the ‘Canes, by locking in at the plate and in the field — Florida had two errors on Friday, and just one over Saturday and Sunday — and turning to No. 2 and No. 3 starters many teams would love to have on the bump on Fridays, is what is probably going to be most heartening for fans who had seen the Gators scuffling at the dish and grown mildly concerned about dropping two midweek games this past week.
This is, so far, not as good a team as the one that won a national title two years ago, or the loaded one that fell short of a repeat in 2018; it might not be a great Florida team, when all is said and done, though the dizzying heights reached under O’Sullivan might have something to do with that. These Gators still need to iron out their batting order and maybe reshuffle their rotation, and could benefit from the emergence of a couple more arms. And given how young they are, it’s anyone’s guess when things will click into place, both individually and as a team — if they even do.
But Miami came to Gainesville red-hot at the plate, and continued that by solving Dyson on Friday. The Hurricanes are good, certainly good enough to be ranked and to make hay in the ACC this spring, and have a potent middle of the order. Miami could very easily have romped past a deflated Florida team after that Friday win.
And turning around an important and emotionally charged series against a rival has the potential to galvanize these Gators. While their schedule isn’t exactly scary from now until mid-March — a midweek two-fer of games against Florida Gulf Coast might be more imposing than weekend series against Winthrop and Yale — the Gators do now know that when it comes to that sort of series, they can summon some resolve.
It’s early, but that’s promising.
Gators snag SEC titles on track, in pool
Florida’s dominant athletic department is so good that when the winter and spring roll around, collecting SEC championships becomes just a sign of the times.
So the Gators double-dipping this weekend with SEC crowns in men’s indoor track and field and men’s swimming and diving is more of a relief than it is surprising.
The Gators were arguably better on the track than in the pool. Florida’s men captured three individual titles — two, in the 60 meters and 60-meter hurdles, from all-everything performer Grant Holloway, who compiled scored a meet-record 28 points — and had three other silver-medal performances, piling up a massive 103 points that made the Gators untouchable even before the meet-closing 4x400 relay ... leading to Florida not even putting a team on the track for it.
The win is Florida’s eighth men’s SEC indoor crown, but its first since 2015 — and just the second that any team not named Arkansas has won when the SEC Indoors have taken place in Fayetteville, joining a 2011 title claimed by ... Florida.
Florida’s women finished fourth, just nine points back of second-place Texas A&M, but well back of runaway winner Arkansas, which tallied a monstrous 151 points that more than doubled the Aggies’ 70. Jumper Yanis David paced the Gators with 20 points from wins in the long and triple jump, becoming just the second Gator — following Olympian Shara Proctor — to double up in the horizontal jumps. Florida’s 27 points from those events were nearly half of its total of 61.
In the pool, on the other hand, Florida’s men continued their recent dominance — and the women were surprisingly successful.
The Gators men won their seventh consecutive SEC title on Saturday, outpointing Missouri to claim the crown at Georgia’s Gabrielsen Natatorium. The biggest swim of Saturday’s Day 5 came in the 1,650 freestyle, where Gators freshmen Robert Finke and Trey Freeman went 1-2 to pick up 60 points, with Finke beating his teammate by more than 25 seconds in a record-smashing performance.
But while that was a comforting win for the Gators in their first season of the post-Gregg Troy era, it was also more expected, with Gator and Olympian Anthony Nesty succeeding Troy as the men’s coach and retaining respected assistant coach Steve Jungbluth.
Florida’s women taking second behind Texas A&M under new coach Jeff Poppell is maybe the more interesting result.
The Gators went 1-2 in the women’s 1,650 free as well, with freshmen Leah Braswell and Taylor Ault pulling the double, and got good swims from Sherridon Dressell — yes, Caeleb’s younger sister — and Vanessa Pearl in sprint events en route to their best SEC Championships finish since 2011. And while that sort of improvement this year was likely possible under Troy, as he was responsible for recruiting almost all of both teams, it seems equally possible that it happening under Poppell means that the Gators will be just fine — or more than that — without their legendary former coach.
Neither Florida’s men nor women would seem to be national championship favorites at this point, though the men could make a run. But this is the first time one Florida team has won an SEC title and the other served as runner-up at the SEC Championships since 2009, when Florida’s women won their most recent title and the Gators men finished a distant second to Auburn. And making strides toward a first sweep of SEC titles since 1993 is no small feat.
Softball continues torrid start
Florida softball has made a habit of blitzing its foes in early-season competition before getting to the meat of its SEC schedule.
That habit has continued this year.
Florida improved its 2019 record to 18-0 by dominating the Bubly Invitational held at newly renovated Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium over the weekend, collecting two wins against each of Florida A&M, Illinois State, and Syracuse and winning all six games by a combined tally of 44-5.
And while Florida has largely played teams that cannot match its collection of talent thus far this year, it has been suitably dominant as a result. Seven Gators are currently hitting .300 or better, nine have homered on the season, and Florida’s team on-base percentage is a staggering .469; ace Kelly Barnhill’s four earned runs in 47.2 innings of work has given her the sort of microscopic ERA she expects to have (0.59), but sophomore Natalie Lugo’s work as Barnhill’s No. 2 (0.91 ERA and a 0.58 WHIP to Barnhill’s 0.59) has impressed this year, and could reduce the pressure on Barnhill to be perfect even more than the senior’s own self-evaluation already has.
Florida’s schedule takes an abrupt turn toward the difficult this week as the Gators take a West Coast trip, meeting UCLA in Fullerton, California on Wednesday before playing in the Judi Garman Classic and taking on Oregon, Washington, and the Bruins again. And SEC play begins next weekend with a home series against Tennessee.
But barring a disastrous showing in the Golden State, what the Gators have shown this year suggests they are, yet again, national championship contenders. Ho-hum, huh?
Women’s basketball continues season of struggles
Florida’s women’s basketball program hasn’t gotten a lot of ink around these parts since its much-publicized run at then-San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to replace Amanda Butler after the 2016-17 season. And there’s a reason for that: Cam Newbauer’s team, which is undergoing a rebuild basically from the studs, has remained the least successful NCAA program on Florida’s campus.
Florida fell to Texas A&M, 80-62, on Monday, despite stroking 13 threes to match a season high. The Gators trailed 20-9 after the first quarter and 36-17 at halftime, making just five of 18 first-half threes en route to their lowest-scoring half all year, before recovering to make eight of 13 threes in the second half and mostly keep pace with the Aggies in the second frame.
This is something of a common refrain for Newbauer’s Gators: They make threes, but do little else well, and that very rarely is enough to win. Florida has hit 213 threes in 2018-19, among the top 50 nationally, but is now 17-40 under Newbauer, and 5-25 in SEC play; the Gators’ last road win came in January 2018.
And some of this makes sense. Playing with a roster rife with transfers and players from all over the place — the Gators have three Floridians and two Australians — is difficult, to be sure, and just two players remain from Butler’s last team.
But those two players, redshirt senior Funda Nakkasoglu and junior Delicia Washington, are the only Gators scoring in double figures, and while Nakkasoglu — a Utah State transfer — has become a reliable and efficient scorer, Washington has stagnated after winning SEC Co-Freshman of the Year honors, and is now averaging fewer points on worse shooting percentages than she did in her rookie campaign.
Florida’s women’s basketball coaches should get long runways, I believe, owing to the extreme difficulty of the job. Butler got 10 years despite a few bad ones; Carol Ross, the only Florida coach to leave the Gators with a winning record in SEC play, did not get an NCAA Tournament win until her fifth season, but also piloted the Gators to the Elite Eight, and thus could very probably have stuck around as long as she had wanted.
But through two years, Newbauer is unlikely to have a season as good as Butler’s worst at Florida — by wins and losses, at least — and could end up having a season worse than the 9-22 fiasco that got Carolyn Peck jettisoned in favor of Butler in 2006-07.
And this is all happening while Butler, back in collegiate coaching at Clemson after a one-year absence, is having a fine year. The Tigers are 18-10 and 9-6 in ACC play, have knocked off ranked Florida State (twice) and Miami teams, and look likely to make the NCAA Tournament as a lower seed — after an 11-19 year that featured a 1-15 mark in conference play a year ago, mind you.
This is not to say that Butler is a better coach than Newbauer, that Newbauer should be fired, or that Florida erred in firing Butler. Butler’s hard-nosed style had worn on too many players at Florida to be ignored, and her program appeared to have plateaued; Newbauer’s style should, if he can put together a roster to fit it, make the Gators dangerous at some point. Paying attention to these things more than most Florida fans do makes it hard for me to simply point at an atrocious record and proclaim that things need to be changed.
At the same time: 6-21 is an atrocious record. And while saying that Florida should be better in women’s basketball than it is very frequently reads to me as begging the question, there is no doubt that it can be better than it is at this moment, because it is only very rarely this bad.
There are just three seasons with single-digit wins in program history, and all three of those featured nine wins. Florida would need to win its remaining two regular-season games — against Georgia and Vanderbilt teams that are unranked and unlikely to make postseason play — and a game at the SEC Tournament just to match that mark. More likely, Florida will lose at least one of those games, and consign itself to the worst record in program history.
That probably will not get Newbauer fired. And I imagine Florida might be better next year than it is this year, if only because it can scarcely be worse.
But even my steadfast belief in long runways can be shaken by a pilot steering off of them. And I don’t know if Scott Stricklin has as much patience as I do.