Zunino’s heroics lift Gators over Wildcats 9-6; Florida takes hold of first place in SEC

Two home runs by sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, including a three-run game-winning shot in the sixth inning, powered No. 4 Florida Gators baseball (40-13, 21-7 SEC) over the Kentucky Wildcats (24-29, 7-21 SEC) 9-6 Thursday, giving the team sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference standings.

Zunino (3-4, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 2 R, BB) has now connected on five home runs in the last three games and boasts a team-high 15 dingers on the season.

After a scoreless first frame at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, FL, Florida’s offense got going in the bottom of the second inning on three consecutive RBI including singles from redshirt sophomore designated hitter Vickash Ramjit (1-3, RBI, 2 R) and senior center fielder Bryson Smith (2-3, RBI, 2 R) and a sacrifice fly by sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana (1-3, 2 RBI).

Kentucky did not waste much time eliminating their deficit, scoring four runs off of sophomore left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson in the top of the third to jump ahead 4-3. With the bases loaded and no men out, left fielder Chad Wright tripled to right field. A single by the next batter, third baseman Thomas McCarthy, brought Wright home to give the Wildcats the advantage.

The Gators responded immediately as Zunino took the first pitch in the bottom of the inning over the wall in left center to tie the game 4-4.

McCarthy tripled down the left field line to start the sixth and scored on a sacrifice fly on the next play to put Kentucky ahead 5-4. Zunino answered for Florida by smacking his second homer on a full count in the bottom of the inning to give the Gators a 7-5 lead.

With Johnson (8-3) out of the game after giving up four earned runs on seven hits with six strikeouts in six innings, junior right-handed pitcher Greg Larson took over in the seventh and allowed an unearned run after two errors helped SS Taylor Black to reach base and advance to second; he was singled home by McCarthy.

Only up one run, Florida put the game away in the bottom of the eighth, rallying for two more scores off RBI singles from Fontana and Zunino.

Sophomore RHP Austin Maddox came on to toss a hitless ninth, sending the Gators to victory with his third save on the year.

Florida’s 40th win of the season, combined with series-opening losses by No. 2 South Carolina (which fell 2-1 to Alabama) and No. 3 Vanderbilt (which dropped a 5-4 contest to Georgia), puts them a game ahead of their SEC East rivals. All three teams were previously tied with a 20-7 conference record. A victory Friday would clinch at least a share of the 2011 SEC regular season title for the Gators.

Florida to face ‘Cuse in BIG EAST/SEC Challenge

ESPN officially announced the field for the 2011 BIG EAST/SEC Challenge on Thursday, and the Florida Gators are set to play the Syracuse Orange at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, NY on Dec. 2 as part of the three-day event.

Undergoing a format change this year, the BIG EAST/SEC Challenge will feature 12 games in on-campus arenas rather than four games at neutral sites. It will last from Dec. 1-3 with six games played at the home arenas of each conference.

All 12 of the SEC’s teams will compete in the event while four Big East teams (the conference has 16 total) will not be in action.

Though the invitational has been around since 2007, Florida has only competed in it once. The Gators lost to the the Orange 85-73 in Tampa, FL on Dec. 10, 2009.

Syracuse leads the all-time series against Florida 3-1.

The Gators’ game against the Orange will be their fifth all-time in the Carrier Dome (4-0); however, Florida have never played Syracuse in the building. All of the Gators’ previous contests there have been in NCAA Tournament action.

2011 BIG EAST/SEC Challenge
Dec. 1
Georgetown at Alabama
Providence at South Carolina
St. John’s at Kentucky
DePaul vs. Ole Miss

Dec. 2
Seton Hall vs. Auburn
Syracuse vs. Florida
Cincinnati at Georgia
Louisville vs. Vanderbilt

Dec. 3
Connecticut vs. Arkansas
West Virginia at Mississippi State
Rutgers vs. LSU
Pittsburgh at Tennessee

All games will be televised on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU.

As OGGOA first reported on April 28, UF will also compete in the Global Sports Shootout tournament to begin the 2011-12 season. The event, which is a collection of games played at different arenas, will see Florida play on the road against Ohio State, in a neutral site game against Wright State (Tampa) and at home against North Florida and Jackson State. UF and WSU will square-off on Nov. 21 at the St. Pete Times Forum; the dates and times for the remainder of the games are still being determined.

TWO BITS: SEC up for grabs, Wilbekin overseas

1 » No. 4 Florida Gators baseball will fight for the 2011 Southeastern Conference regular season title beginning on Thursday with a three-game home series against Kentucky. Florida (39-13) is tied atop the conference standings with the No. 2 South Carolina Gamecocks (42-11) and No. 3 Vanderbilt Commodores (42-8); all three times sport a 20-7 SEC record heading into their respective final series of the year. UK (24-28, 7-20 SEC) is the “worst” opponent of the three; South Carolina plays at Alabama (31-22, 13-14 SEC), and Vanderbilt heads to Georgia (27-26, 15-12 SEC). Should there be a tie with two or three teams, the conference regular season title will be split. A tiebreaker will then be used to determine seeding for the 2011 SEC Tournament; the Gamecocks hold the advantage there with series wins against both the Gators and Commodores. Florida has possession of the second tiebreaker (if necessary) due to a series victory against Vanderbilt last week.

2 » The Gators basketball team may not be playing internationally over the summer like head coach Billy Donovan had hoped, but The Gainesville Sun’s Kevin Brockway reports that one of the team’s youngest players will be playing abroad over the next few months. Florida sophomore point guard Scottie Wilbekin was selected as one of 10 Division I college basketball players to compete in Macedonia and Kosvo as a part of Athletes In Action, a Christian missionary group. The additional summer work will be good for Wilbekin, who hopes to earn even more time ion the court in a crowded backcourt next season. Brockway notes that the team Wilbekin will be playing for is coached by Tim Maloney, a former assistant to Donovan at UF from 1997-2003.

OGGOA Caption Contest Result: Noah/Horford

We received a ton of submissions for the sixth ONLY GATORS Get Out Alive caption contest celebrating our @OnlyGators Twitter account reaching 10,000 followers, and a winner has been chosen to receive a FREE Florida Gators Fathead ($100 value).

Reader Andrew E. worked hard and came away with the No. 1 spot!

Winning caption: Noah and Horford watched in silent horror as Charles Barkley commenced his pregame ritual of devouring a small, innocent child

Because we had so many good entries, honorable mentions for this contest go out to the following readers and their submissions:

Two guys who know what back-to-back is all about (Jimi B.)

Knowing Noah’s weakness from their days at Florida, Horford resorts to the awkward but effective “tickle defense” (Joelle D.)

Noah and Horford pick an inopportune time to practice their secret Oh Fours handshake (Chris D.)

OGGOA has given away multiple Florida Gators DVDs, a Florida Field rug, Game Day purse, Into the Swamp book, pieces of Gators art, T Bow Towels, Gillette Pro Fusion razors, a Turlington Scarf and other goodies throughout our 19 months of existence. There are a number of other giveaways coming up in the near future, so stay tuned!

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FOUR BITS: Weis, Muschamp, baseball, Demps

1 » The Florida Gators failed to get a commitment from four-star linebacker Raphael Kirby (Stone Mountain, GA) on Tuesday, but offensive coordinator Charlie Weis was in attendance at the Stephenson High School spring game to check in on commits four-star running back Mike Davis and three-star defensive lineman Jafar Mann. Those onsite at the game note that Weis and his Super Bowl ring (which he let a few fans try on) were a major attraction, and Davis was pleased to see his future coach was in attendance. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that Mann ended up not participating in the scrimmage “after violating undisclosed team rules.”

2 » Florida head coach Will Muschamp continues to make his rounds of the state while Gator Gatherings are hosted in his honor. He was in Tallahassee on Tuesday and took the opportunity to talk about his counterpart with the Florida State Seminoles, Jimbo Fisher. “In our profession, we’re so busy throughout the year, it’s awful hard to maintain a relationship with anybody unless they’re on your staff,” Muschamp said, according to Florida Today. “But I’ve got great respect for Jimbo. I obviously know [his wife] Candi and the Fisher family very well. We worked together I think about six or seven years. Any time you spend that much time with somebody, I’ve got great respect for him as a football coach and a person. He does a good job.” It should be noted that FSU is no longer referred to the “Team Out West” and UF’s in-house posted schedules; Muschamp has changed it to read “Florida State.”

3 » No. 4 Gators baseball (39-14) struggled mightily Tuesday, allowing the unranked Jacksonville Dolphins (33-18) to rout them 11-2 at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, FL. Jacksonville posted three quick runs in the first inning, and starting junior left-handed pitcher Alex Panteliodis (4-2) was pulled after allowing four earned runs on four hits and two walks while striking out three in 2.2 innings. Sophomore catcher Mike Zunino (1-2, HR, 2 RBI, R, BB) hit a two-run bomb in the bottom of the first, but Florida’s offense stalled the remainder of the contest. Replacing Panteliodis, junior right-handed pitcher Anthony DeSclafani did not have much luck either, giving up five runs (two earned) while striking out four in 2.1 innings. Jacksonville piled on two more runs in the fourth, three in the fifth and a pair in the eighth to cruised to the victory. The loss was difficult to deal with but relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things for Gators baseball. UF is set for a three-game series with Kentucky beginning on Friday that could determine if Florida, South Carolina or Vanderbilt wind up the 2011 Southeastern Conference regular season champion. All three schools are currently tied for first-place with USC holding the tiebreaker.

4 » Putting together his “freaks list” for the 2011 college football season, ESPN Insider’s Bruce Feldman has placed Gators senior running back Jeff Demps at the very top. Here is a portion of what Feldman had to say:

Gators strength coach Mickey Marotti says the back can squat “an ungodly amount of weight.” And despite the added pounds, Demps has gotten faster. “He was a 10.1 guy, is now a 9.9 guy and probably will be a 9.8 guy,” said Marotti, who adds that Demps has really improved his acceleration. […]

“It’s his work ethic and his motor,” said Marotti. “It’s really something special. From the time he showed up here through today, it’s always full-go. This is an overachieving guy that has a lot of gifts. He has an energy and enthusiasm for everything. People feed off him. They love to be around him. He’s the hardest working guy on our football team and I can’t speak for our track coach, but I believe he’s probably the hardest working guy on our track team too.”

Chandler Parsons – Path to the 2011 NBA Draft: Preparing for the combine in Chicago

Through the 2011 NBA Draft, Florida Gators forward and 2011 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Chandler Parsons will be keeping fans up-to-date on his Path to the Draft via a weekly blog entry exclusively here at OGGOA.

In Chicago, IL preparing for the 2011 NBA Combine, Parsons got in touch with us on Monday to submit his first entry while relaxing at the suburban home of former Florida big man and Chicago Bulls starting center Joakim Noah.

Noah, who was relaxed and focused between games of the Eastern Conference Finals, is about an hour away from the city where Parsons will work out for all 30 NBA general managers from Wednesday until Saturday.

After I spoke to you on Monday, I spent the rest of the week continuing to workout in Los Angeles, CA, doing the same stuff and working on my conditioning. David Lee actually came out there and was working with all of us, and the trainer and I were just putting on some finishing touches and sharpening a few things up before I left.

I headed over to Oklahoma for my first workout, which went really well. The Oklahoma City Thunder invited 12 players to the Sunday workout and split us up into two groups of six. They held it at 9 a.m. on the day the team played game seven [of the Western Conference Semifinals].

Right when I got in there Saturday, there was a room in the hotel where a bunch of people who work in the front office for the Thunder interviewed me. [They asked] typical questions about my game, upbringing and childhood – basically every question you could imagine they were asking just to get to know me better. There were also a lot of questionnaires and surveys and a background check.

On Saturday night before the workout, the GM [Sam Presti] took me to dinner. There were 12 players there, and I was the only one to go to dinner, so that was pretty special.

Sunday was everything else including a psychological test and physical tests. They looked at my vertical [jump], height, [wingspan], the size of my hands and legs, did balance testing and a shuttle run. You do everything possible testing-wise and then you actually go on the court and do a hour workout with their player personnel staff.

The workout was at 9 a.m., and I had a flight already scheduled right out of there to Chicago. I ended up getting in around 10 p.m. on Sunday and just checked into my apartment. [Monday] morning, I woke up at 8:30 a.m. and started doing just everything I’m going to do at the combine this week.

I did spot-shooting at 18-feet and from three-point range, worked on catching and shooting on the move, and did four-spot one-dribble pull ups going each way. I also had a little conditioning and some ball handling drills mixed in to stay sharp. That lasted until 11:30 a.m. I grabbed lunch, came back at 3:30 p.m. and lifted with E’twaun Moore from Purdue, who is also with my agent [Mark Bartelstein].

All of my Chicago workouts are with my trainer Josh Oppenheimer and strength coach Ryan Thompson. I worked out with them in Chicago before I went to Los Angeles. Josh is a great guy; he’s really intense.

Over the next few days I will basically just be getting a lot of reps up – because you know exactly what they’re going to be doing at the combine. There’s nothing competitive this year. It’s just basically all shooting, two-on-one/three-on-two fast breaks and a whole interviewing process where every team there that is interested will interview you.

I will go through a whole bunch of tests, go to the hospital and get X-rays, ultrasounds and all sorts of tests to make sure my body is right and I don’t have any injuries. The next couple of days I will be rehearsing those things while keeping my conditioning, working on my all-around game and working on my shuttle run and vertical.

My agent has said that tons of teams are very interested in me, so I’m going to have anywhere from 12-16 workouts. I’ve already done Oklahoma City, I have the combine this week, and then I got invited to a group workout – the only group workout – in Minnesota. It’s where the top 24 prospects get invited and all 30 NBA GMs can come and watch you.

Go Gators,

Alvarez voted to College Football Hall of Fame

Former Florida Gators wide receiver Carlos Alvarez has been voted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the National Football Foundation announced on Tuesday.

One of 79 All-American players and nine coaches made eligible for selection by the voting committee, Alvarez will be one of 16 inductees (14 players, two coaches) who will be officially enshrined in July 2012 after being honored at a dinner in Dec. 2011.

He played on the Gators for three seasons (1969-71) and still holds three school records for career receiving yards (2,563), receptions in a single season (88) and receptions in a game (15). Alvarez also set the then-University of Florida and Southeastern Conference career receptions mark with 172 catches in 1971.

“I’m hardly ever speechless, but I am,’’ he told UF senior writer Scott Carter. “When you look at college football and the number of people who have played…I feel honored just to be mentioned.’’

Alvarez is the third Florida player elected to the Hall of Fame since 2006.

He will the ninth overall representative of the Gators to be enshrined in the hall, joining coaches Charlie Bachman (1978), Doug Dickey (2003) and Ray Graves (1990), and players linebacker Wilber Marshall (2008), running back Emmitt Smith (2006), quarterback Steve Spurrier (1986) and defensive ends Dale Van Sickel (1975) and Jack Youngblood (1992).

“Carlos is a great example of all that is good in college athletics. His tireless work and commitment to excellence translated into success both on and off the field,” athletic director Jeremy Foley said in a school release. “He has maintained his level of commitment and success in his professional career as well. I’ve had the opportunity to see Carlos a number of times when he visits Gainesville and he remains a tremendous ambassador for our program. The honor is well deserved.”

Photo Credit: University of Florida archives

FOUR BITS: SEC titles, Lemmens, Kirby, Rollins

1 » Over the weekend, the Florida Gators men’s and women’s track and field teams both turned in second-place finishes at the 2011 Southeastern Conference Outdoor Championships. Though both squads fell short of team titles, Florida student-athletes took home seven individual SEC titles. Junior Gray Horn (decathlon), junior Will Claye (long jump, triple jump), senior Terrell Wilks (100-meter dash), freshman Fawn Miller (javelin) and junior Genevive LaCaze (steeplechase) all won SEC Championships, as did the men’s 4×100-meter relay team. Horn now holds the unique distinction as only the second athlete in SEC history to win three consecutive league decathlon titles. His total of 7,828 points over the weekend also set a school record for the event.

2 » As part of the continuing series “Parting Shots” on InsideTheGators.com, I sat down with former Gators defensive end Duke Lemmens for an extensive interview which spanned his entire career in the orange and blue. Lemmens spoke with me candidly about a number of topics including former head coach Urban Meyer, his place at Florida, thoughts of transferring and much more. Part one of the two-part series is available free to OGGOA readers. You can check it out by clicking here.

3 » If it was up to Florida’s four-star running back commitment Mike Davis (Stone Mountain, GA), all of his top high school teammates would be committing to the Gators this year. Though some have already made declarations for other colleges, four-star linebacker Raphael Kirby (Stone Mountain, GA) is set to announce his decision at his team’s spring game Tuesday night and is believed to have Florida as his leader. Kirby told InsideTheGators.com that both offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and offensive line coach Frank Verducci will be in attendance Tuesday for the “first time to see me in person.” Kirby also had this to say about the Gators:

“I had a great visit when I went down there it was awesome, I got to meet all the coaches and go into The Swamp. The Swamp was awesome. I love the atmosphere down there I could definitely see myself fitting in there. I have two teammates there so it would be cool to go there with them; we have definitely talked about it. As far as football goes they have a great defense that really gives you an edge when it comes to getting into the NFL. I like Coach Muschamp as well as he is a very straight forward coach who has a lot of intensity about himself. He will have an immediate impact on the program.”

4 » He may not have been offered by Florida this time around, but Florida State University School DE/LB Keviron Rollins (Tallahassee, FL) plans to play for the Gators sooner than later. Rollins, who officially committed to Dean College (a junior college in Massachusetts) on Monday, told the Tallahassee Democrat that he hopes to be wearing orange and blue after he graduates from Dean College in two years. “My vision is I’m going to go up there for two years and then after that I’m going to transfer to UF,” he said. “I’m a diehard Gators fan. That’s my vision.”

Extra BIT » Former Florida first baseman Matt LaPorta had a great night for the Cleveland Indians. He was interviewed on ESPN‘s SportsCenter afterward:

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