• Ainslie Lee

The Day the Music Died for Gator Sports

Updated: Jul 10, 2020

Like a fourth-round sucker punch after three flawless rounds, Florida baseball was down—but far from out. 

After winning 16 straight contests, the No. 1-ranked Gators hosted the No. 15-ranked Florida State Seminoles on March 10 in the much-anticipated Sunshine Showdown. Despite sharp performances on the mound from Nick Pogue and Tyler Nesbitt, Florida couldn’t find its bearings inside the batter’s box. 

Meanwhile, the Seminoles capitalized on the Gators’ lack of offense and secured a 2-0 upset in Gainesville. 

Courtesy of Anissa Dimilta/UAA

The sting of a shiner intensifies when it comes off of the hand of a rival. But for the Gators, the swelling had yet to rob them of their sight. Florida baseball had a lot to look forward to. 

And then, they went from No. 1… to done. 

It was a Thursday. Just two days after Mike Martin Jr. and the ‘Noles delivered Florida its blackeye in front of the last home crowd to ever shuffle into Alfred A. McKethan Stadium. In wake of the Coronavirus, the NCAAscrapped the remainder of the athletic season for both winter and spring sports. 

That was four months ago. 

And since then, whether it be unemployment or foggy glasses thanks to masked breathing, Covid-19 has continued to disrupt our daily lives in some fashion. It’s hard to remember what life was like before the pandemic took hold. And it’s certainly been tough to find the silver lining in all of this. 

But for Florida athletics, as Steve Spurrier would say, God was smiling on the Gators. 

It’s easy to look at the baseball program and fall in love with what could’ve been. But if you paid attention, that same potential sprawled across campus. 

Across the street from baseball’s future home, Florida softball was coming to terms with living life without Kelly Barnhill and Amanda Lorenz. And it quickly proved that the loss of two All-Americans doesn’t define a program. 

Turning away from past schemes, Tim Walton and the Gators were no longer heavily reliant on stingy performances from the circle. Instead, learning to generate offense became Florida’s forte. 

From top to bottom, from the one hole to the nine hole, the Gators were about as well rounded as any college softball lineup in America. 

As a complete roster, the Gators were hitting .316 on the season and boasted one of the most electric 1, 2 and 3 hitters in the country. 

Hannah Adams (.375), Kendyl Lindaman (.410) and Charla Echols (.417) were about as consistent in their performances as anyone would like to see. The three sluggers combined for a total of 97 hits -- 66 of which plated a run. 

Courtesy of Tim Casey/UAA

Walton attributed the uptick in hitting to a change in batting practice.

Instead of relying on sweat equity and exhausting the arms of one of the pitchers on staff or practicing with unrealistic soft tosses, the Gators began to use pitching machines to sharpen their craft.

Also changing for Florida softball, was its defensive approach. 

When you field a pitcher like Kelly Barnhill, you don’t need to be as reliant on the defense behind the circle. 

But in the shortened 2020 season, the Gators began pitching for contact. Aces Rylee Trlicek and Natalie Lugo applied the pressure to its defense, which proved to be as hard nosed as they come. 

Through 27 games, the Gators had found success in 23 of them. The mere four losses on the season came at the hands of three-ranked opponents.

The No. 7-ranked Gators were preparing for the No. 24-ranked Baylor Bears to visit Gainesville before the NCAA scrapped the season. But looking ahead, there wasn’t much standing in the way of Florida softball’s chances to run the table in the SEC and make a deep postseason run. 

Meanwhile, the O’Connell Center housed three programs that were ready to pounce on any opportunity to make waves. 

On the gymnastics front, Jenny Rowland had the Gators rolling, per usual. 

Trinity Thomas was quickly ascending from her status of “rising star” to “phenom”. After notching three perfect 10s and picking up eight SEC gymnast of the week honors, it’s no surprise that the UF sophomore picked up the maximum of five All-American honors in 2020 and was named SEC’s Gymnast of the Year. 

Courtest of Erin Long/UAA

Rowland and the Gators were set to roll into their final regular season meet at Texas Woman’s University with a perfect 10-0 record on March 13. 

They’d never make it. 

Like their baseball-playing counterparts, the No. 2-ranked Florida Gators gymnastics team was pacing towards a national championship it would never have an opportunity to compete in. 

As for Mike White and Florida basketball, well, the program certainly left plenty to be desired after an underwhelming 2019-2020 regular-season campaign. 

However, there was still basketball to be played. 

Meeting in Nashville, the Gators and the rest of the SEC’s men’s hoops squads were awaiting the start of the SEC tournament. But before the first game could get underway, the tournament came to a screeching halt -- citing coronavirus precautions. 

Courtesy of Courtney Culbreath/UAA

And while Florida was far from the tournament favorite, it was college basketball in March, afterall. 

Cinderella stories happen every March. And while the Gators will never be called a “Cinderella story”, no matter how improbable a Gator run might be, this doesn’t rob them from the possibility of upsetting teams. 

Heading into the conference tournament, some viewed the Gators as a “bubble team” in the NCAA tournament. And with a couple of wins in the SEC tournament, it could have been enough to nudge Mike White’s team into the field of 64. 

And every year we witness proof that getting in is all a team needs to make magic happen. 

But above the hardwood in the O’Dome, there were less questions and more answers. 

On the pool deck, the Gators had a number of swimmers slated for excellence -- both at the collegiate level and in the then-scheduled 2020 Olympics.

After winning the 2020 SEC championship, Florida’s men’s swimming and diving team was continuing on its path of dominance -- one that saw the Gators nab 14 All-American honors. 

Sophomore Kieran Smith broke the American record in the 500 freestyle after touching the wall in just 4:06.32. With an American record in tow, Smith was awarded with the SEC’s Male Swimmer of the Year recognition.

Courtesy of Courtney Culbreath/UAA

Smith was one of 13 Gators to earn invites to the 2020 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships. 

In addition to championship hopes, these same Gator swimmers also had legitimate hopes to make splashes in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

That’s where we were. 

Crazy to think we went from all of that to where we are now—in this painfully abnormal sports hiatus. 

And now we are forced to live in this strange, isolated world wondering what would have happened had this never come about? But we also wonder, what if it’s far from over?

The thought of Covid-19 bleeding into the fall sports season is enough to make me shudder. But in the same breath, it’s a thought all of us are having.

And truth be told, it already has. 

When the NCAA cancelled the remainder of the winter and spring sports seasons, it took spring football with it. 

In a typical year, one where there isn’t a pandemic wreaking havoc across the globe, college football teams across the country look forward to spring camp. It plays a major part in prepping for the upcoming season. 

Early enrollees, who typically are some of the higher-rated prospects, get an opportunity to get their feet wet. And coaches gain more insight on exactly what type of roster they’re working with. 

Offensively, Florida is dealing with a wide receiver corps overhaul, looking for a new “face of the backfield” after the departure of Lamical Perine, in addition to piecing together an offensive line. 

Defensively, the Gators are looking to replace two field generals in David Reese III and Jonathan Greenard. Todd Grantham and Co. are also looking to pin down a defensive backfield depth chart—something we began to see take shape towards the end of last season. 

And while the lack of opportunity to address these things in the spring time could hinder the Gators’ readiness, it’s important to recognize two things:

  1. It could be worse.

  2. Everyone is going through it.

Florida football’s quarterback situation is as good looking as it’s been since the departure of the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner. 

When looking at the general status of the SEC’s signal callers, it is, uncharacteristically, trending downward. 

Joe Burrow is gone. Jake Fromm is gone. Tua Tagovailoa is gone. 

Not to mention the many other changes around the league… such as Feleipe Franks competing for Arkansas’ starting position with a first-year head coach. In addition to coaches like Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin looking to reconstruct a program’s entire offense. 

Doing all of that in one offseason is hard enough. But doing that in one offseason without spring ball seems like mission impossible. 

Right now, a lot looks like mission impossible. Sometimes getting out of bed is mission impossible. For me, remembering my mask is mission impossible. 

But we can learn a lot from Florida’s athletic programs. 

Baseball teaches us to roll with the punches. Softball reminds us that change can be good. Underclassman Trinity Thomas proves that anyone can be great. Men’s basketball would tell us that anything can happen if you put your foot in the door. All of those swimmers share the belief that good things come to those who wait. 

And the football team shares two important messages with everyone:

It could be worse. 

Everyone is going through it. 

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