For as much as the Florida Gators were in the news off the field in 2011 (check out Friday’s post), the Gator Nation was making plenty of headlines on it as well. From breathtaking moments, game-changing and game-winning plays to winning championships and setting world records, Florida accomplished some unique athletic feats in 2011. Below are OGGOA‘s Top 11 On the Field Moments of the Year.
11 » JOHNSON, BRANTLEY, KITCHENS SUFFER SCARY INJURIES
Plenty of Florida student-athletes suffered injuries in 2011 but three in particular caused fans to gasp and remain worried about the future of said player. Participating in the semifinals of the 2011 SEC Tournament, Gators baseball wound up dropping a close game 4-3 to Georgia, a loss that forced an elimination game which Florida would later win. However, UF sophomore right-handed pitcher Brian Johnson was taken off a stretcher in the top of the first inning after giving up two earned runs and accidentally being beaned in the back of the head with the baseball by sophomore catcher Mike Zunino. Trying to pick off a runner stealing second, Zunino got his leg tangled with the batter, tripped and flung the ball into the head of a crouching Johnson. He was quickly stabilized, brought to the hospital and deemed responsive though he had a massive headache and was diagnosed with a minor three concussion (no skull fractures or bleeding). Johnson missed the entire Gainesville Regional but returned to action in the Super Regional after being sidelined for more than two weeks.
Redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley was in the middle of playing the best game of his collegiate career (despite throwing a costly pick-six) when he went down with an ugly lower leg injury at the end of the first half against Alabama. Brantley had thrown a pretty 65-yard touchdown pass to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Andre Debose on the first play of the game and was in the middle of driving Florida in for another score before being sacked twice and having his lower leg contorted the second time. Brantley was nearly immediately ruled out of the team’s next game against powerhouse LSU with a high-ankle sprain, and UF was forced to start a true freshman who had not even taken a snap in the team’s first five games in consecutive road contests against LSU and Auburn. Needless to say, the Gators lost both of those contests.
Brantley was never the same after the injury. He nearly helped Florida beat Georgia but was pretty much immobilized in the pocket and threw three interceptions in the team’s first five possessions against Florida State before being knocked out of the game with a head injury that was equally painful to watch. However, that was not the Gators’ only major injury in that game. Perhaps the scariest incident of the year came on kickoff coverage when sophomore linebacker Darrin Kitchens was hit hard from his blindside and laid motionless on the field while trainers attended to him. To this day Kitchens does not remember anything about being hit. Lucky for him, he was cleared that evening with “just” a concussion, released from the hospital and allowed to return to practice with the team just before Christmas. He is expected to play in the 2012 Gator Bowl.
10 » LACROSSE WINS FIRST CONFERENCE TITLE, REACHES ELITE EIGHT
The Florida lacrosse program has been making history since the day it signed the nation’s No. 1 ranked recruiting class prior to the team’s inaugural season in 2010. The Gators were a young but talented group and won over the school even if falling short of some of their goals one year ago. Florida took the next step in 2011, ending the regular season with an 11-0 record at home and on a 13-game winning streak. The Gators capped their stellar regular season by defeating Northwestern for the 2011 ALC Championship just 419 days after the team played its first game in school history. Florida would fall to Northwestern just over three weeks later in the finals of the 2011 ALC Tournament, splitting the season’s conference title down the middle, but took home a number of awards from the league. Sophomore midfielder Kitty Cullen won Player of the Year honors while head coach Amanda O’Leary was named Coach of the Year in just her second season. Two more players were All-ALC first team selections and three others earned spots on the second team. The ladies made it all the way to the Elite Eight of the 2011 NCAA Tournament as well before being taken down 13-9 by Duke, their only loss at home on the season. The Gators were the first program in the history of the sport to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament in only their second year of existence and defeated some of the top teams in the country on the way to an unforgettable season that sets Florida up as a favorite heading into 2012.
9 » 10 NAIL-BITER FINISHES FOR GATORS BASKETBALL
Florida basketball had some struggles at the start of the 2010-11 season, dropping two games to unranked non-conference opponents but things appeared to be heading in an upswing for the team when UF defeated Tennessee 81-75 in overtime on Jan. 11 even after allowing UT to score the last four points in regulation and force the extra period. However, just four days later, the Gators suffered another upset by blowing a six-point lead at home and allowing South Carolina to earn a 72-69 win on the back of Bruce Ellington. Instead of getting down on themselves, Florida regrouped and pulled off three close victories (two against ranked opponents) in 12 days against some of the best competition in the SEC. The Gators started with a nail-biter on the road against Georgia that was forced into a second overtime after junior point guard Erving Walker hit a three-pointer from about 30 feet out at the end of the first extra period (UF wound up dominating the second OT and winning 104-91). Florida then hosted Vanderbilt at home and was forced into another overtime; sophomore guard Kenny Boynton‘s heavily contested trey with 1:04 left gave the Gators another win. UF was forced into another tight spot at home against Kentucky, down one with just under four minutes to play. Florida hit three clutch free throws in the waning seconds and senior forward Alex Tyus made a nice hook shot to give the Gators a 70-68 win over their SEC East rivals. UF did not have to wait too long for another opportunity to stun their fans, utilizing a go-ahead layup from Walker with 14 seconds remaining to defeat Tennessee 61-60 on Feb. 12.
Florida had a bit of a break from nailbiters until the NCAA Tournament, which saw them go into overtime against BYU for the second-straight year. This time the Gators got a measure of revenge as Tyus led them with 19 points and 17 rebounds as UF triumphed 15-6 in extra time and 83-74 in the game. Florida, however, would suffer its most crushing defeat of the season in the very next game, blowing a late lead against Butler in regulation and missing three shots at the end of overtime to be eliminated from the Elite Eight. With the new season still young, the Gators have already seen two close calls. Florida beat Arizona 78-72 in overtime after a questionable foul call gave their opponent a chance to tie the game at the end of the second half (they did). UF also suffered a shocker on Dec. 29, losing in two overtimes on the road at Rutgers. The Gators had a seven-point lead with 2:06 to play but turned the ball over twice in under 30 seconds, allowing RU to keep the pressure on and eventually pull out a win. With the entire SEC slate ahead of them in 2012 and high expectations once again, Florida basketball is sure to provide plenty of breathtaking moments in the new year.
8 » BASEBALL, SOFTBALL REACH CWS CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES; TEAMS PRODUCE PLENTY OF EXCITING MOMENTS, BIG ACCOMPLISHMENTS
So much happened in 2011 that the baseball and softball teams are forced to share a spot here on the countdown but that should not at all lessen the achievements of both squads this past year. The regular season saw its share of prime performances. Senior pitcher Stephanie Brombacher tossed the second perfect game of her career in just 67 pitches on Feb. 14 as the softball team won an astounding five games in three days. Almost one month later to the day, Gators baseball rallied back from a four-run deficit as a walk-off single by junior left fielder Daniel Pigott propelled Florida to a 5-4 extra innings win against in-state rival Florida State. Gators baseball also swept LSU on the road for the first time in school history in March and swept Alabama on the second-to-last weekend of April though something else even more notable occurred over the course of a two-day stretch. Senior LF Kelsey Bruder, leading a scorching hot softball team, hit a walk-off three-run homer that Saturday against No. 3 Alabama and followed it up with a walk-off infield single in extra innings the next day to send her squad to consecutive wins.
Florida cleaned up the annual SEC awards to end the regular season. For softball, Bruder earned Player of the Year honors, while head coach Tim Walton was named Co-Coach of the Year. Three Gators earned spots on both the All-SEC first and second team, while two more made the Freshman All-SEC team and a pair earned SEC All-Defensive team honors. Zunino captured Player of the Year honors for baseball and was one of three placed on the first team. Three more Florida players made the second team with a pair each being placed on the freshman and defensive teams. It was the first time in school history that student-athletes representing the school won Player of the Year honors in baseball and softball. Baseball began its postseason by blanking Vanderbilt 5-0 to win UF’s first SEC Tournament title since 1991. It was then softball’s turn to shine, staving off elimination in the 2011 Women’s College World Series with a 5-2 victory over California. The Gators went on to stun the Crimson Tide 16-2 and 9-2 in consecutive wins on June 5 to advance to the WCWS Championship Series, reigning victorious in three consecutive elimination games on their way to the title series. Unfortunately things did not go swimmingly for Florida after that. The Gators were left questioning the officiating in their first game against Arizona State and wound up being swept in consecutive games to lose the championship for the second time in three years. Florida’s path on the baseball diamond was a bit more dominant but nonetheless ended with the same result. The Gators walked off in the bottom of the ninth with a 5-4 win over rival Miami in the Gainesville Regional and crushed the Canes 11-4 the next day to advance to the Super Regional. Florida then fought off Vanderbilt 6-4 to advance to the 2011 College World Series Championship Series but was similarly silenced when playing for the title. SEC rival South Carolina swept UF in consecutive games, giving the Gamecocks 16-straight NCAA Tournament victories and their second national championship in as many seasons. The Gators head into the 2012 campaign considered the No. 1 team in the country but have the ‘Cocks firmly nipping on their heels hoping to square off once again late in June.
7 » RYAN LOCHTE SETS WORLD RECORD IN 200-METER IM
Already gaining the upper hand on 14-time Olympic gold medalist and U.S. teammate Michael Phelps at the World Swimming Championships in China earlier in the year, former Gators standout Ryan Lochte continued his efforts to become the face of USA Swimming with a world record performance on July 28. Previously the owner of four world records, Lochte added a fifth by topping Phelps for the second-straight race and finishing the 200-meter individual medley with a world-best time of 1:54.00 in Shanghai, China. Lochte shaved 0:00.10 off his previous best and set the first world record since high-tech bodysuits were banned at the beginning of the year. “I wanted to do something that everyone thought was impossible,” he said after the race. “Since they banned those suits, everyone thought a world record would never get touched again. I just wanted to show everyone that can happen. That’s why we have records — they’re meant to get broken. Hopefully everyone now can start realizing that, ‘Hey it’s possible,’ so hopefully a lot more records will fall.” Lochte will represent his country and Gator Nation at the 2012 London Olympics next summer and will have plenty of opportunities to win more gold medals and set additional world records.
6 » MEN’S TRACK AND FIELD WINS NCAA, SEC INDOOR CHAMPIONSHIPS
Ranked as the top team in the country all season and attempting to continue dominating both their league and the nation, the Gators men’s track and field team captured their sixth conference title and first since 2004 in February, winning the 2011 SEC Indoor Championship. Sophomore sprinter Jeff Demps won the SEC 60-meter dash championship with a 6.55 (one-hundredth of a second faster than his record-setting time a year ago), and seven other Florida athletes captured individual titles, too. Junior Gray Horn won the first heptathlon title in school history, junior Christian Taylor earned his third-straight triple jump crown, and junior Dumisane Hlaselo won the 3,000-meter run for the first time since 1993. (Florida also finished 1-2-3 in the triple jump with Gators taking home the silver and bronze). Just over two weeks later, Florida went on to win the 2011 NCAA Indoor Championship and became just the fourth different program in event history to win back-to-back national titles. Demps (60 meters) and junior Will Claye (triple jump) each won individual titles, while Taylor ended up grabbing the silver in the latter event. Though Demps may not compete in 2012 and Hlaselo was dismissed from the team after the season, the Gators have a number of seniors looking to make it three-straight national championships for Florida next year.
5 » BASKETBALL TAKES HOME SEC TITLE, LONG OVERDUE YEAR-END AWARDS; BILLY DONOVAN WINS CAREER GAME NO. 400
The storybook season for Florida basketball had its share of bumps in the road but in the end the Gators still captured their first SEC regular season title since 2007 by dominating Alabama 78-51 on Senior Night. Fittingly, Florida’s trio of senior forwards – Tyus, Chandler Parsons and Vernon Macklin combined to score 50 of the team’s 78 points in the game. The Gators won the SEC title outright just a few days later and earned a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament by taking down No. 20 Vanderbilt 86-76 on the road. All five of Florida’s starters scored in double figures in the game and the team was obviously motivated to prove their worth with an impressive 11-3 offensive rebounding margin. Florida’s impressive – and to many somewhat unexpected play – landed head coach Billy Donovan the first SEC Coach of the Year award of his career despite the fact that he had coached in three national championship games, won two titles and been victorious in three prior SEC Tournaments. The Gators’ team leader in rebounding and assists as well as a double-digit point scorer, Parsons became the first UF men’s basketball play to ever win the SEC Player of the Year award, learning about the honor the same day Donovan received his. Though the 2010-11 season ended in disappointment, Donovan has already gotten Florida out to a hot start in the 2011-12 campaign. Two of the Gators’ three non-conference losses have come to two of the top three teams in the country, and the Florida coach added another notch to his quickly expanding belt. On Nov. 28, Donovan picked up the 400th victory of his head coaching career as UF routed Stetson 96-70 in Orlando, FL. He became the youngest active coach with at least 400 Division I victories but lauded his players for his success. The Gators were sure to reward Donovan with a Gatorade shower in the locker room and hope to thank him further as they try to win another conference and national title in 2012.
4 » TEBOWMANIA DOMINATES THE NFL, ESPECIALLY ON THE FIELD
A Heisman Trophy winner and two-time national champion with the Gators, Florida fans already knew what quarterback Tim Tebow could do and hoped that the Denver Broncos and the rest of the NFL would realize the same as the year went on. Tebow was the talk of the league all year long for plenty of off-the-field reasons. His religion is always a topic of conversation, his legions of fans posted billboards trying to get him to replace Kyle Orton as Denver’s starting quarterback, his book became a New York Times’ bestseller and his pre-darft documentary was well-received both on ESPN and DVD. However, Tebow’s on-the-field accomplishments were undeniable as well and are what landed him on this particular list. Finally named the Broncos’ starter on Oct. 11, Tebow had a tall task ahead of him trying to rescue Denver from a 1-4 start. He started that journey by leading an improbable come-from-behind 18-15 victory against the Miami Dolphins on the road in his first game at the helm. Tebow’s team was down 15-0 when he engineered an eight-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. After the Broncos recovered an onside kick, he led a 10-play, 56-yard scoring drive that ended in a two-point conversion to tie the game. Denver eventually won with a field goal in overtime. All of this occurred, ironically enough, as Miami hosted Gator Day at Sun Life Stadium. After a tough loss to Detroit the following week, Tebow led the Broncos on a six-game winning streak including five-straight close victories. A fourth-quarter touchdown pass led Denver over Kansas City 17-10 on Nov. 13, and Tebow really became the talk of the sports landscape the following week after his 20-yard rushing touchdown with just 58 seconds left sent the Broncos to an upset victory over the New York Jets. Tebow kept Denver in a shootout against Minnesota and led consecutive field goal drives in the fourth quarter for a 35-32 win, and his kicker again helped him lead another victory after a fourth-quarter touchdown pass and two 50+ yard kicks gave the Broncos an overtime win at home versus Chicago. Tebow ended 2011 with back-to-back losses including the worst performance of his career against Buffalo but can begin 2012 on a high note by beating Kansas City and sending Denver to the playoffs.
3 » BLACK’S PICK-SIX ENDS OUTBACK BOWL, SENDS MEYER OUT SMILING; GAME BALL PRESENTED TO LOCKWOOD IN PRESS CONFERENCE
A play, victory and moment that occurred on Jan. 1, 2011 stood for months as the likely No. 1 moment of 2011; in fact it took two pretty amazing accomplishments to knock it all the way down to No. 3 on this list. With former Florida head coach Urban Meyer looking to go out with a bang and the Gators in desperate need of a victory to end an underwhelming 2010 season, senior safety Ahmad Black truly came through in the clutch. With Penn State threatening to score a potential game-winning touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the 2011 Outback Bowl, Black intercepted QB Matthew McGloin and returned the ball 80 yards for a touchdown to ice a 37-24 win for Florida. The Gators celebrated on the field, Meyer got a Gatorade shower prior to his wife joining him to cheer the team on and chants of “Urban Meyer, Urban Meyer” rained down from Florida’s side of the stadium during the post-game interview and as the team walked off the field.
Black, the team’s leader all season and Meyer’s favorite player on the squad, was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Meyer said after the game that he felt it was “rather appropriate that Ahmad Black, the best safety in college football, won that award.” He also called Black “one of my closest friends” and a “family” member who has “turned into a grown man, a grown man who is going to pay taxes some day, a grown man who is going to have a family some day. He’s going to be a great father and a great husband because Ahmad Black is a grown man now.” Meyer continued to wax poetic about Black after the game, again calling him the “best safety in college football,” and Black responded in kind saying that the most important thing about the game was Meyer going out with a victory. “I just wanted to go out there and do it for him,” he said. In perhaps an even more touching moment following the bowl win, Meyer and Black presented the game ball to Ian Lockwood, a high school football player who had to stop playing on Oct. 8 and became patient at Shands Hospital who was receiving treatment for brain cancer. Black gave Lockwood the very ball he intercepted to ice the game and said “it was our goal and objective to win the game for Ian.” Lockwood embraced Meyer and Black after saying a few words, capping a day that could not have gone any more perfect for either of the three men or any member of Gator Nation. Lockwood passed away later that month at the all too young age of 18.
2 » EMBREE’S LATE-MATCH HEROICS PROPEL WOMEN’S TENNIS TO NCAA TITLE
Florida women’s tennis, from a national standpoint, is the most accomplished program in school history, and sophomore Lauren Embree ensured that the Gators added a school-high fifth national championship to their catalog with a heroic and historic performance on May 24. After four hours of action between No. 1 Stanford and No. 2 Florida, the Gators defeated the Cardinal 8-6 following Embree’s third-set come-from-behind victory against Mallory Burdette. Florida defeated Stanford on their home court and served the Cardinal a loss for the first time in 12 years; Stanford had been undefeated at home over 184 matches dating back to Feb. 27, 1999. The Gators took the doubles point right away but fell behind 2-1 with a pair of singles defeats. The Cardinal then brought UF to the limit in three matches that all advanced to a third set. Each took one victory and Stanford held a 3-2 lead but as Embree and Burdette were doing battle, freshman Olivia Janowicz won her match to tie the contest up 3-3.
No. 22 Burdette had fought back from a 5-1 deficit in the first set to win 7-3 but gave up the second set 6-3 to No. 17 Embree. The former had a 4-0 advantage on the latter in the third, but Embree turned the tide by winning five-straight games to take a 5-4 lead. Attempting to break Burdette’s serve and win the match, Embree had double match point with a 40-15 lead but gave it up as Burdette powered her way to deuce and then to victory tying the third set 5-5. Embree answered back to take a 6-5 lead, but Burdette responded by winning the next game to once again tie the match 6-6 and force a tiebreaker. Burdette started with two quick points but the duo kept trading pairs of makes and found themselves knotted up at 6-6. With the home crowd and history against her, Embree forced Burdette into consecutive errors and watched the ball sail long as she won the third set 6-6 (8-6) and clinched the title for the Gators. Not only did Embree pull out the victory for UF, she also earned a measure of revenge for former teammate Marrit Boonstra, who was in a similar situation as Embree one year ago facing Burdette with the national title on the line. Boonstra fell to Burdette 6-4, 6-7(4), 7-5 and was devastated by the loss but was on the court as a student coach that Tuesday, smiling as Embree redeemed her failure one year prior. Florida finished 31-1 on the season and handed Stanford (28-1) their first loss of the year, all while winning a national title and completing a mesmerizing match that will be remembered for years to come.
1 » WAMBACH SHOCKS WORLD, LEADS U.S. IN WOMEN’S WORLD CUP
There is only one way to a pair of moments that make an entire fan base scream in delight and cry in happiness – making an entire nation (and most of the world) do the same. That is why former Gators striker Abby Wambach’s run with the U.S. Women’s National Team in the 2011 Women’s World Cup is OGGOA’s top moment of 2011.
On the brink of the earliest elimination from a World Cup in U.S. history, the Americans were snatched from the jaws of defeat on July 10 as Wambach directed a sharp header into the net two minutes into injury time during extra time to tie the match with Brazil 2-2 and force a penalty kick finish. The USA made all five PKs to complete the incredible come-from-behind victory and remain alive in the World Cup, and Wambach (along with teammate and fellow former Florida player Heather Mitts) celebrated with Gator Chomps after the match. Wambach, however, was far from done.
Just three days later with the United States facing elimination once again in a 1-1 match with France, Wambach again saved the day with a deft header from the far post to give the Americans a 2-1 lead and propel her team to a 3-1 victory that sent the U.S. to the finals of the World Cup for the first time since 1999. Later that evening, Wambach’s header against Brazil from three days prior won the ESPY award for Best Play. A late entry into the category, the play was voted by sports fans as the winner, immediately jumping all of the other accomplishments that year.
Four days later, Wambach nearly did it all again. For the third time in as many matches she appeared to be the savior for the United States, heading in a goal 14 minutes into extra time to put the Americans ahead 2-1 on Japan in the World Cup finals. Unfortuantely, for the second time in the match, the U.S. squandered its lead and allowed Japan to score an equalizer. The Americans eventually fell 3-1 to the Japanese in a highly-contested penalty kick finish, losing the World Cup in Germany. Wambach earned both the Bronze Boot and Silver Ball Awards for her amazing effort and left the event with 13 World Cup goals, more than any other American in the history of the sport.
The United States’ run was fueled by Wambach’s passion and desire, and she took the entire nation on a roller coaster of emotions as she did everything she possibly could to help bring a victory home to the U.S. No one had as many “I can’t believe that just happened” moments on the field in the whole year as Wambach did in the month of July and there is no denying that her efforts in Germany placed her firmly at No. 1 on this list.
Photo Credits (in order): Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun, USA Swimming, University of Florida, Associated Press, Rob C. Witzel/Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun, University of Florida, Unknown, Martin Meissner/Associated Press