Top 13 for 2013: Florida’s best moments of the year

For as bad as things went for the Florida Gators at times in 2013 (see the Not Top 13 for 2013), there were more than a fair share of bright spots. From breathtaking moments and game-winning plays to earning championships and setting records, the Gators had plenty to be proud of in 2013. Check out OnlyGators.com‘s Top 13 for 2013.

13 » A NEW TRADITION
Florida’s football program did not get much right in 2013, but instituting a new pre-game tradition – a “celebrity” serving as Mr. Two Bits in honor of the original, George Edmondson – was absolutely a bright spot. The Gators also picked the perfect person to kick off the new tradition with former running back Errict Rhett performing as if he was made for the role. Others had trouble stepping up to the high benchmark set by Rhett, but the honorary Mr. Two Bits was nevertheless a great sight for fans all season long…even if the team was not. OnlyGators.com sat down with Rhett after his appearance for an extensive interview about the experience and his career.

12 » 15-INNING MARATHON
In the fourth-longest game ever played at the Women’s College Series (longest since 1992), Florida softball prevailed 9-8 over Nebraska in a night game that lasted 15 innings and more than five hours, spanning into the early morning of the next day. The Gators lost two separate leads in the contest before rallying to score two runs in the top of the 15th; UF conceded a run in the latter half of the inning but held on for the victory. Unfortunately for Florida, it had to suit up just hours later for an elimination game against Texas at 1 p.m., one it lost 3-0. The Gators were ranked No. 2 entering the 2013 NCAA Tournament but fell short of a title.

11 » ALL HE WANTED WAS A CHANCE


Redshirt junior quarterback Tyler Murphy waited patiently as he got overlooked time and time again, most recently by head coach Will Muschamp and his offensive coordinators in favor of younger players with higher ratings coming out of high school. When junior QB Jeff Driskel went down with a fractured fibula against Tennessee, Murphy finally got his shot and made the most of it. Over a three-game stretch including games on Sept. 21, Sept. 28 (at Kentucky) and Oct. 5 (vs. Arkansas), Murphy completed 39-of-54 passes (72.2 percent) for 530 yards with five touchdowns and just one interception. (He also gained 135 yards and picked up two more scores with his legs.) Unfortunately for him, Murphy injured his shoulder on Oct. 12 against LSU and was simply not the same player as he took the field in more pain than he or the coaching staff decided to admit publicly. Murphy missed the final three games of the season due to that injury and ultimately transferred, feeling Muschamp would not give him a fair chance to win the starting job in 2014.

Continue Reading » Top 13 for 2013: Florida’s best moments of the year

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FOUR BITS: Embree, Pounceys, Driskel, Tebow

1 » Former Florida Gators tennis star Lauren Embree was named the 2013 ITA National College Player of the Year on Wednesday, just months after she was named the organization’s National Senior Player of the Year. Embree, who helped lead Florida to two national titles and eight total league crowns, has been training in Boca Raton, FL, and California over the summer as she prepares to begin her career as a professional. Be sure to check out OnlyGators.com’s extensive feature on Embree from May in which she goes in-depth about the tough conclusion to her college career.

2 » According to ESPN’s John Clayton, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins plan to speak to Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, respectively, about their decision to don “Free Hernandez” hats while in a club on Saturday night. Though neither player is expected to be reprimanded by his team in any tangible way, each is considered a locker room leader and centerpiece of his respective team’s future. On Monday, Maurkice Pouncey released the following apology: “I fully recognize the seriousness of the situation involving my former teammate, and I regret that my actions appear to make light of that serious situation. I apologize to anyone who was offended by my actions.”

3 » Participating in a “Air-It-Out” competition while serving as a counselor at the Manning Passing Academy over the weekend in Thibodaux, LA, Florida junior quarterback Jeff Driskel put together a strong performance and finished second amongst the top-tier signal callers in attendance (Miami’s Stephen Morris placed first). While Driskel seemed to do everything right while in attendance, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel was a whole other story. According to Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, Manziel was out at a bar early Friday morning and showed up late for one of his coaching sessions hours later. The next day, he completely missed a Saturday morning coaching session, did not alert anyone he would not be there and then left that afternoon. Manziel told staff later in the day he was not feeling well – his father later claimed he was dehydrated, which, presumably, is simply a nicer word to use than “hung-over” – and the staff responded by suggesting he go home. Adding to speculation that Manziel was indeed hung-over and not simply “dehydrated” are reports that he was spotted still having a good time as late as 1:27 a.m. Saturday morning.

4 » Eight-time MLB All-Star right fielder Darryl Strawberry, who has dealt with his share of drug and health problems over the past 30 years, has turned his life around and now spends his days working as an ordained minister. Using religion partially as his reasoning, Strawberry told USA Today last week that he simply wishes he could have been more like New England Patriots quarterback Tim Tebow as a young man. “I wish I could have been like a Gary Carter or a Tim Tebow when I was playing,” he said. “I look at Tebow. He gets bashed because of his faith. Let ‘em laugh. Let ‘em talk. He’s a greater man than anyone who might be greater than him as an athlete. He’s a real man. … I admire him more than he could ever imagine.”

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Lauren Embree prepared to move on after bitter conclusion to her outstanding Florida career

It took her a few days, but Lauren Embree found her smile again.

The jovial, outgoing and exceedingly accomplished star of the Florida Gators women’s tennis team faced the toughest stretch of her playing career one week ago while being uncharacteristically upset in a pair of singles matches within a three-day span. Her college career, which she thought could end with a third team national title and perhaps even a singles championship, came to screeching halt sooner than she, her family, teammates or coaches could ever have expected.

Entering a 2013 NCAA Tournament semifinal round showdown with Stanford on May 20, Embree had not lost as a singles competitor in dual match play. The No. 1 player in the country was 20-0 on the season, 11-0 against top 25-ranked opponents.

But none of that mattered when she lined up across from No. 13 Nicole Gibbs, who had Embree’s number from the get-go. Gibbs thwarted her 6-0, 6-1, not only earning a huge upset victory over arguably the best player in the country but also putting Florida’s season on the brink in the process.

The rest of the Gators fought hard but ultimately lost, dropping the match 4-3 to the Cardinal and getting knocked out before the finals for the first time since 2009.

Embree was understandably devastated yet had no choice but to regroup quickly as she was also competing in NCAA singles action two days later. She never could have guessed what would happen next.

Matched up against No. 21 Jacqueline Cako from Arizona State, Embree put up a better fight than she did two days earlier but was still defeated 6-3, 6-2 despite having numerous opportunities to make a run in the second set.

After a career that earned her the well-deserved nickname “Ms. Clutch,” her most recent outings left her feeling like she was anything but.

“Obviously those were not good performances,” Embree said in a conversation with OGGOA on Tuesday. “It was heartbreaking, and it’s definitely a feeling that I had my freshman year in the finals [loss]. You don’t want to ever feel like that, but it’s a part of sports and it happens.

“Starting with the [loss in dual match play] and then having to play individuals, kind of regroup and try to get my mind clear, it was obviously not the way I wanted to go out and end my college career.”

Continue Reading » Lauren Embree prepared to move on after bitter conclusion to her outstanding Florida career

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Lauren Embree named National Player of the Year

Florida Gators senior tennis player Lauren Embree was named the 2013 ITA National Senior Player of the Year on Tuesday.

Just the third player in school history to receive the honor (Nicole Arendt in 1991, Jessica Lehnhoff in 2002), Embree is the reigning 2012 ITA/Rivera Women’s All-American Singles Champion. She is currently ranked No. 1 by the ITA and was announced on Tuesday as the No. 1 overall seed in the 2013 NCAA Singles Tournament, which opens play on Wednesday.

Embree is also a three-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year (2010-12).

She has led Florida to four-straight Southeastern Conference regular-season titles (2009-12), four consecutive SEC Tournament crowns (2009-12) and back-to-back NCAA National Championships (2011-12) with her singles victories clinching both national titles for the Gators.

In NCAA dual match play, Embree is Florida’s career leader in singles wins (15-1), doubles wins (19-3), combined wins (34-4) and combined winning percentage (.895). She usually played her best when it meant the most for the Gators.

Photo Credit: Ron Irby/Tampa Bay Times

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Gator Bites for Thursday, October 25

From time to time, OGGOA will come across a plethora of news and notes that we wish to share – too much to fit into one of our truncated BITS segments. In these instances, or when stories fall through the cracks, we catch and wrap them all up with Gator Bites.

» OGGOA learned this week that the Florida Gators basketball team is set to scrimmage the Rollins Tars on Saturday in Gainesville, FL. Florida usually hosts another team for a scrimmage before the season begins and practiced against Central Florida in this spot one year ago. Former Gators forward Adam Allen and walk-on guard Kyle McClanahan both now play for Rollins as Allen is re-starting his basketball career following multiple knee surgeries and McClanahan transferred in order to play more.

» ESPN’s Andy Katz confirmed on Wednesday that Florida and Georgetown will both be wearing camouflage uniforms for the Navy/Marine Corps Classic in Jacksonville, FL on Nov. 9. The uniforms have not yet been received by either school as Nike is putting the finishing touches on them before producing and shipping them out.

» Here’s a fun commercial for the 2012-13 basketball season: “Live Live in the Dome.”

» The University of Florida and University of Georgia student governments established a rivalry trophy in 2009 for the annual football series between the two schools. Though the Gators held the Okefenokee Oar the first two years it existed, the Bulldogs got to bring it back to Athens, GA last year. Anxious to get it back, UF built a display case for the trophy in the Reitz Union, which the student government hopes can be filled with the oar following the game. More from The Gainesville Sun.

Read EIGHT more Gator Bites…after the break!
Continue Reading » Gator Bites for Thursday, October 25

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FOUR BITS: Bell, tennis, Tebow, The Swamp

1 » With Jacksonville Dolphins head coach Kerwin Bell a hot name amongst fans to fill the offensive coordinator role with the Florida Gators, The Florida Times-Union reports that he is mulling an offer from the team but not to serve in that capacity. According to the paper, “multiple sources familiar with Florida’s interest” in Bell says the former Gators quarterback is being offered the quarterback coach role with the team. OGGOA was told weeks ago by a person close to Bell that he would only leave Jacksonville if Florida offered a role more substantial than position coach (such as passing game coordinator or co-offensive coordinator at a minimum) because the move would otherwise come with a great reduction in responsibilities and no increase in pay. If he was hired for one of the other positions, Bell would still have fewer responsibilities but could offset that with a return to Gainesville, FL and a higher salary.

2 » The ITA on Tuesday released its preseason national rankings and the defending national champion Gators can be found all over the organization’s lists. Florida as a team comes in at No. 1 to start the season while Stanford, the squad UF defeated for the title, will begin 2012 in the No. 2 spot. The Gators also have five singles competitors in the top 41 nationally: junior Allie Will (No. 3), senior Joanna Mather (No. 4), junior Lauren Embree (No. 25), sophomore Sofie OyenAlex Cercone (No. 41). Stanford’s Mallory Burdette, who Embree defeated in the final match of the national title event, is listed as the preseason No. 1 player in the country. Burdette, along with Nicole Gibbs, also holds recognition as the No. 1 doubles team. Two Florida pairings, however, are ranked in the top 15: Oyen/Will (No. 10) and Embree/Mather (No. 15). The men’s team is ranked No. 8 preseason with three singles competitors and three doubles pairs also listed.

3 » The Beaver County Times recently spoke with Pittsburgh Steelers offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and Marcus Gilbert, asking each about their time with Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow while in Gainesville. Both said plenty of kind things about Tebow, though Pouncey took a bit of an issue to only being asked about him and not the other Florida players he faces throughout the year. “How come nobody asked me about Brandon Spikes when we played the [New England] Patriots?” he quipped. “I’m tired of answering all these questions about Tim Tebow.” Fair enough. Pouncey and Gilbert both agreed that Tebow was a great teammate and somebody they liked on a personal level as well. They each also said he was a crazy competitor in the weight room. “They actually had to calm him down at times,” Pouncey told the paper. “He was trying to do things quarterbacks shouldn’t do. He’d go in there and try to bench press all this weight and do stuff quarterbacks shouldn’t’ do, and he’s the guy who was to throw the ball on Saturdays.” “Yeah, he’s an animal in the weight room,” Gilbert added. “He was a big guy with a lot of energy in all aspects of football, whether it was in the weight room, in the meeting room or on the football field. He was so passionate about the game. That’s what you want from your leader. He was the kind of guy you want on your team. Just being around him drove me to become a better player.” Pittsburgh and Denver go head-to-head in the first round of the NFL playoffs on Sunday.

4 » The University of Florida announced Thursday that demolition and renovations to the West Concourse portion of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium began one month ago on Dec. 5, 2011. According to UF, the renovations will provide new features “including enhanced restroom facilities, better overall lighting, improved crowd circulation, and winder concessions with more points of sale, including new food items not previously offered in the stadium.” There will also be “flat screen televisions, new graphics and new way finding signage, redesigned ceilings, and the use of high-end finishes along with brighter colors.” Florida expects the work to be completed before the 2012 season begins, and you can find out more about the project by clicking here.

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FOUR BITS: Johnson, Thornqvist, Whitson, Weis

1 » No. 2 Florida Gators baseball’s sophomore left-handed pitcher/designated hitter Brian Johnson will be active for the Super Regionals beginning on Friday. After missing the Gainesville Regional while recovering from a concussion suffered during the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament, Johnson feels fine and is raring to go, according to head coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who spoke with reporters after practice on Wednesday. Sophomore first baseman/closer Austin Maddox, who sprained his foot in the first game of the Gainesville Regional, remains day-to-day.

2 » Florida women’s tennis head coach Ronald Thornqvist has been named the 2011 ITA National Coach of the Year. Thornqvist, who coached the No. 2 Gators to the 2011 NCAA Championship in May, led Florida to a 31-1 overall record and helped sophomore Lauren Embree reach the semifinals of the NCAA Individual Championships. This is Thornqvist’s first national coach of the year award.

3 » Florida freshman right-handed pitcher Karsten Whitson was named to the 2011 Louisville Slugger Freshman All-American team, as selected by the Collegiate Baseball newspaper, on Wednesday. Posting an 8-0 record with a 2.42 ERA so far this season, Whitson was one of 20 freshmen starting pitchers who received the honor.

4 » According to The Gainesville Sun, the property purchased by Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is a 10.5-acre estate located in Reddick, FL right near I-75 worth $1.1 million. Currently on the land are a 4,041-square-foot house and 6,336-square-foot horse barn, undoubtedly a selling point for Weis’s wife Maura, an avid horse enthusiast and rider.

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Embree’s will earns redemption for UF, Boonstra

Exactly one year ago today, Stanford Cardinal tennis player Mallory Burdette won her team the 2010 NCAA Championship. Squaring off against the higher-ranked Florida Gators, Stanford captured their 16th title when Burdette battled and eventually upended then-senior Marrit Boonstra 6-4, 6-7(4), 7-5 in the final match of the afternoon.

Boonstra, understandably, was devastated. Her 17-match singles winning streak came to an end and, more importantly, her inability to close that day cost her team a title. No one blamed her for the loss, but she heaped plenty of it on herself.

What a difference 12 months can make.

After falling to the Cardinal in that match and once again at the 2011 USTA/ITA Indoor Championships, the Gators had revenge on their minds entering the 2011 NCAA Tournament as the No. 2 overall seed.

And wouldn’t you know it? Fighting their way through the bracket with relative ease, Florida wound up face-to-face with Stanford on their home court, a place where the Cardinal had not lost in the last 184 matches spanning more than 12 years.

Tuesday night, it became sophomore Lauren Embree’s job to release that frustration and exact the revenge her team had been building up. What a coincidence it was Embree would be given that opportunity for the Gators…against the exact opponent who ended their party a year earlier.

Embree’s match with Burdette at Taube Tennis Center in Stanford, CA was one for the books. It may not have set records for match length or points won, but something special happened on the court that is tough to capture in words.

Fans in attendance and watching around the world saw two players scrape and claw their way to the brink. Label it determination, tenacity or perseverance; whatever you choose to call it, Embree-Burdette turned into Ali-Frazier and someone had to win.

Luckily for Florida, it was Embree, who fought against impossible odds to claim the fifth national title for the Gators women’s tennis program.

She started the match hot, up 5-1 in the first set before Burdette powered her way to six-straight games and a 7-5 win. Looking dejected, Embree fought back to claim the second set 6-3 and even things up. Then Burdette took over again, mounting a 4-0 advantage in the third and final set, putting Florida’s hopes for a title on the brink even as Gators freshman Olivia Janowicz held a massive lead on the far court.

Embree did not panic.

She kept her focus, channeled some inner strength and fought back to take a 5-4 lead. When Burdette knotted the match twice at 5-5 and 6-6, Embree kept her composure and realized, even though she was exhausted and outmatched physically, her opponent was just as tired and was making more and more mental mistakes.

If Embree could put away a point, she did. If she was falling behind, she kept her rally long enough where either Burdette would have to expend extra energy to win or commit an unforced error due to exhaustion, frustration or both.

Burdette may have had the physical advantage (not to mention a raucous home crowd cheering her on), but Embree was onto her and did everything she could to create opportunities for Burdette to slip up.

In the end, it worked. Embree won a thrilling tiebreaker 8-6, her teammates exploded onto the court to hug her in celebration and Gator Chomps were performed everywhere from Stanford to Gainesville.

Florida accomplished a rare feat.

Not only did they end an undefeated streak, beat the No. 1 team in the country and avenge two championship losses within the last 12 months, the Gators and Embree redeemed a player who gave her heart and soul to the team for four years only to be crushed emotionally in her final performance.

Tuesday night, on the court as a student coach for Florida, Boonstra smiled.

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