Gators cage Bulldogs 11-1 in Super Regional

On a scorching day at McKethan Stadium in Gainesville, FL, nothing was hotter than the home team’s offense. Scoring in the first five innings of the game, No. 2 Florida Gators baseball (49-16) demolished the Mississippi State Bulldogs (37-24) 11-1 in the first of the three-game Super Regional series taking place over the weekend.

Florida’s offense was not the only thing on fire Friday as sophomore left-handed pitcher Hudson Randall (10-3) was absolute dynamite on the mound, only allowing a single earned run while striking out a season-high eight batters in eight innings of work.

The Gators’ offense was potent out of the gate, plating four runs in the first. Sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana led off with a walk and was joined on base by senior center fielder Bryson Smith and junior right fielder Preston Tucker (0-3, R, 2 BB), who reached via a single and walk, respectively. Sophomore catcher Mike Zunino capitalized with a bases loaded two-RBI double, and senior left fielder Tyler Thompson (1-5, 2 RBI) followed suit two batters later to help another pair of runs cross the plate.

Fontana (1-4, HR, 2 RBI, 2 R, BB) connected with a two-run homer to right in the second, and Zunino (2-4, HR, 3 RBI, 2 R, BB) added a solo shot on the first pitch of the third to provide Florida with an early 7-0 advantage that the team hoped to improve upon.

That is exactly what the Gators did in the fourth, as Smith hit a one-out single up the middle to plate freshman third baseman Cody Dent (1-1, RBI, 2 R, 2 BB), and senior second baseman Josh Adams (2-5, RBI) singled through the left side of the infield to score Smith (3-5, RBI, R). Florida tacked in one more run in the seventh via a solo shot by junior designated player Daniel Pigott (1-4, HR, RBI, R).

The Gators improved to 34-9 all-time at home during NCAA play and are now 37-6 when scoring first and 40-2 when out-hitting their opponent this season.

With the series-opening victory, Florida needs only one more win to advance to the 2011 College World Series for the second-straight year. It would be the first time in school history that the Gators would make an appearance in the CWS in consecutive seasons.

Game two of the Gainesville Super Regional takes place Saturday at 12 p.m. and airs live on ESPN and ESPN3.com. Game three, if necessary, will begin Sunday at 1 p.m.

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Gainesville Super Regional: Florida vs. Miss. State

Event: 2011 NCAA Tournament – Super Regional
Location: McKeethan Stadium – Gainesville, FL [Capacity: 5,500]
Time: 12:00 p.m. (ET)

TV: ESPN2 / ESPN2HD
Online Video: ESPN3.com
Live Updates: @OnlyGators

(2) FLORIDA GATORS MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Head Coach: Kevin O’Sullivan Head Coach: John Cohen
Record: 48-16 Record: 37-23
Conference: Southeastern Conference: Southeastern
Roster | Schedule Roster | Schedule

PROJECTED STARTERS

Game 1: Sophomore LHP Hudson Randall (9-3, 2.38 ERA, 0.98 WHIP)
Game 2: Freshman RHP Karsten Whitson (8-0, 2.42 ERA, 1.18 WHIP)
Game 3: Sophomore RHP Brian Johnson (8-3, 3.66 ERA, 1.15 WHIP) OR
junior RHP Alex Panteliodis (6-2, 3.76 ERA, 1.17 WHIP)

HISTORY and STREAKS

» Florida is 53-40 in the all-time series against Mississippi State, though MSU is 1-0 vs. UF NCAA Tournament play.
» The first team to win two games in the three-game series will advanced to the 65th NCAA College World Series.
» This is the Gators’ third-straight Super Regional appearance and fifth in the last eight years. Florida has only been to five in school history.
» This is the Bulldogs’ fourth Super Regional appearance in school history.
» Should Florida advance to the CWS, it will be the first time in school history they have done so in back-to-back seasons.
» The Gators are 33-9 (.786) all-time at home during NCAA play.
» Florida is 3-1 against Mississippi State this season, losing the first of a three-game series in Starkville, MS (7-5) before winning three-straight games including a SEC Tournament first-round match-up (18-0, 3-1, 7-5).
» MSU head coach John Cohen is a former UF assistant under Pat McMahon.
» This is the first time the Gators have faced a SEC opponent in Super Regional action.
» The UF and MSU boast different strengths. Florida leads Mississippi State in batting average (.311-.282), runs scored (413-369), hits (683-566), homers (58-28), RBI (382-327), ERA (2.97-4.24), strikeouts (486-471) and fielding percentage (.974-.973). However, the Bulldogs hold advantages in steals (88-56), walks (260-214), on-base percentage (.384-.382) and saves (16-14).

LAST TIME OUT…

Down 5-2 in a close game in the first round of the SEC Tournament, the Gators used a grand slam by sophomore designated hitter Brian Johnson to take a 7-5 lead and eventually advance in the event.

KNOW THE OPPONENT

Mississippi State is the second-ranked team in the SEC West after finishing with a 14-16 record in league play. The Bulldogs are 11-9 away from home and 9-10 against top 25 opponents this season. Florida has won six of the last seven meetings against MSU dating back to a three-game series that took place in 2010.

INJURY REPORT

Sophomore LHP/DH Brian Johnson – concussion
Out for game one
Sophomore 1B/RHP Austin Maddox – foot
Out for game one, day-to-day for series

KEEP AN EYE ON…

» UF’s starting pitchers…which are a combined 21-2 (.913) with a 2.01 ERA in the friendly confines of McKethan Stadium this season.
» The Gators’ bats…which have scored 190 more runs than their opponents this year.
» Early offense…Florida is 36-6 (.857) when scoring first and 39-2 (.951) when out-hitting their opponent in a contest.
» Sophomore catcher Mike Zunino…a powerhouse at the plate who leads the team in batting average (.371), hits (86), homers (16), runs (68), slugging (.668)…and strikeouts (45). He also has 62 RBI on the season.
» Sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana…arguably the strongest fielder on the team who has also come on as of late offensively. Fontana, as the team’s leadoff hitter, is hitting .309 with 71 hits, 52 runs, 44 RBI and a team-high 45 walks.
» Junior right fielder Preston Tucker…who is the Gators’ best run producer with 65 RBI on the season. Tucker is hitting .319 with 81 hits, 51 runs, 13 homers and 24 walks.
» Junior reliever Nick Maronde…who has made a team-high 31 appearances and has posted a 1.66 ERA with two saves in 38 innings. He has amassed 50 strikeouts compared to only seven walks this season, and only six of the 24 hits he has allowed have been for extra bases.
» Third baseman Jarrod Parks…who leads MSU in batting average (.365), hits (73), RBI (36) and walks (43) and has also scored 50 runs in 200 at-bats this season.
» Second baseman Nick Vickerson…the Bulldogs’ speedster who hits .314 with a team-high 53 runs scored, seven homers, 35 walks and a team-high 25 stolen bases.

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Johnson’s grand slam powers Florida over MSU

Down 5-2 in the bottom of the seventh, Florida Gators sophomore designated hitter Brian Johnson stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and smacked a grand slam to right to propel his team to an eventual 7-5 victory over the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the first round of the 2011 Southeastern Conference Tournament.

No. 2 Florida (42-15) got on the board in the bottom of the first, tacking on a run when junior right fielder Preston Tucker (2-4, 2 RBI, R, BB) doubled to center on a full count to score sophomore shortstop Nolan Fontana (0-1, RBI, R, 3 BB). Mississippi State (34-22) jumped ahead 2-1 in the third, but the Gators responded when Fontana was walked with the bases loaded in the fourth to plate senior second baseman Josh Adams (2-4, RBI, R) and tie the game 2-2.

The Bulldogs followed by scoring three unanswered runs including a solo homer from Nick Vickerson (2-4, HR, 3 RBI, R) in the top of the sixth and two more on a fielder’s choice and wild pitch in the seventh.

In a hole, Florida got its first three batters on base in the bottom of the inning. Senior center fielder Bryson Smith (0-4, R) was hit by a pitch, Tucker forced a walk and sophomore catcher Mike Zunino (2-5, R) singled to center to setup Johnson’s (1-4, GS, 4 RBI, R) game-changer. Already up 6-5, the Gators added another run in the eighth when Tucker scored Dent (1-2, R, 2 BB) with an RBI single to left field.

Junior right-handed pitcher Tommy Toledo (2.2 IP, 2 ER, 2 H, 6 K, 2 BB) got the start for UF but picked up a no decision. Sophomore left-handed pitcher Steven Rodriguez (3-1) threw a hitless 1.2 innings in relief and earned his third win; sophomore RHP Austin Maddox (S4) came on in the ninth to get the final three outs and secure the victory.

No. 3-seed Florida will take on No. 7-seed Alabama in winner’s bracket action on Thursday at 4:30 p.m. The Gators swept the season series 3-0.

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FOUR BITS: Weis on Brantley, Sweeting wins

1 » Florida Gators offensive coordinator Charlie Weis was a guest Monday on ESPN‘s First Take. He spoke about a number of topics (see video) but also discussed recruiting redshirt senior quarterback John Brantley out of high school. “I’m a drop-back, pro-style offense guy. John really fit that bill. He was your prototypical drop-back quarterback. He could sling it; he could make every throw. He was very, very productive [in high school],” he said. “I thought he would have been a great fit for us. He had a lot of family ties at the University of Florida that kept him at Florida. I’m glad he made that choice because right now we get a chance to work together.”

2 » After dropping the series opener 5-7, No. 4 Gators baseball (26-7, 9-3 SEC) achieved back-to-back victories over the weekend to take a three-game road series against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (21-11, 5-7 SEC). Outscored 5-7 on Friday, Florida rebounded with consecutive 18-0 and 3-1 victories on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Hudson Randall (5-1) picked up his first loss of the season in the first game after giving up six earned runs in only 2.1 innings. Sophomore left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson (5-1) and sophomore LHP reliever Steven Rodriguez (2-1) picked up victories in the final two contests. Standout performers included sophomore catcher Mike Zunino (6/12, GS, 6 RBI, 6 R, 2 BB), senior second baseman Josh Adams (5/14, 2 RBI, 2 R, 2 BB) and sophomore first baseman Austin Maddox (5/14, 2 RBI, 2 R).

3 » No. 10/11 Gators softball (33-7, 10-6 SEC) ended a six-game losing streak with a three-game sweep of the Arkansas Razorbacks (10-32, 1-18 SEC) at home over the weekend. Florida outscored Arkansas 20-1 in the dominant fashion they finished opponents off the majority of the season. Freshman RHP Hannah Rogers (19-5) tossed three complete games, scattering 12 hits while striking out 23 batters. Unlike recent outings, Rogers had plenty of run support from her teammates with a trio of seniors – 1B Megan Bush (3/9, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 R), 2B Aja Paculba (5/9, 5 RBI, R, 2 BB) and left fielder Kelsey Bruder (4/9, 3 RBI, 4 R, BB) – leading the way.

4 » Former Gators tennis player Ryan Sweeting won his first ATP title over the weekend, defeating the field in the 2011 U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships in Houston, TX. He jumped more than 20 spots in the ATP rankings to No. 71 in the world after winning the final match 6-4, 7-6.

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SIX BITS: swimming, Gal, gym, tennis, lacrosse

1 » During the 2011 NCAA Swimming and Diving Championships on Friday, the Florida Gators men’s team brought home a pair of National Championships. Competing in Minneapolis, MN, senior Brett Fraser captured the national title in the 200-yard freestyle. He was also part of the four-man team – including senior Conor Dwyer, junior Jeffrey Raymond and sophomore Sebastien Rousseau – that won the championship in the 800-yard freestyle relay.

2 » Former Florida golfer Sandra Gal picked up the first LPGA victory of her career on Sunday, winning the Kia Classic and $255,000. She finished at a 16-under 276 and won on the 18th and final hole on Sunday. “I’m a bit overwhelmed,” she said after the win. “you know, it was close all day long, so I had to kind of dig deep to pull out some shots. I’m just happy to have finally done it. I had a good feeling about today when I woke up.”

3 » Gators gymnastics was honored Wednesday when a number of players were awarded with spots on 2011 All-Southeastern Conference teams. junior Ashanée Dickerson and freshman Alaina Johnson earned First Team recognition, while junior Nicole Ellis, senior Alicia Goodwin, sophomore Marissa King and senior Maranda Smith were named to the Second Team. Johnson also picked up a spot on the SEC All-Freshman Team and was named SEC Freshman of the Year. Joining her with an overall honor was Rhonda Faehn, who won her second-straight SEC Coach of the Year award. It is the fourth of her career.

4 » No. 1 Florida women’s tennis continued their march to the postseason with a pair of impressive shutout victories over the weekend. The Gators (17-1, 6-0 SEC) took down the Ole Miss Rebels (8-6, 1-4 SEC) 7-0 on Friday and the Mississippi State Bulldogs (2-10, 0-6 SEC) 7-0 on Sunday.

5 » Following suit was No. 19 Florida men’s tennis (12-5, 5-1 SEC), which took down Mississippi State (9-6, 4-2 SEC) in a 4-3 nail biter on Saturday. With the match tied, No. 6 senior Alexandre Lacroix took No. 84 Artem Ilyushin into a third-set tie breaker to pull out the victory. Lacroix won 6-3, 4-6, 7-6(5) to give UF its eighth 4-3 finish.

6 » No. 9 Gators lacrosse (10-1, 1-0 ALC) continued its spectacular sophomore season on Saturday, taking down the Ohio State Buckeyes (5-4, 0-1 ALC) 10-8 at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, FL. Ohio State actually outscored Florida 5-3 in the second period but was unable to overcome UF’s 7-3 first-period advantage. Sophomore midfielder Kitty Cullen, on her way to likely earning conference and perhaps national honors this season, scored six goals on 11 shots for the Gators. She now has a team-high 49 goals and 53 points on the season.

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SIX BITS: awards, softball, lacrosse, gymnastics

1 » Florida Gators track and field head coach Mike Holloway was honored with the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association’s National Men’s Indoor Head Coach of the Year award on Friday for the second-straight year. Holloway, who has led Florida to back-to-back NCAA Indoor Championships over the last two seasons, continues to rack up the national and regional awards. One of his assistants on the men’s team, Dick Booth was awarded National Men’s Indoor Assistant Coach of the Year by the USTFCCCA as well.

2 » The state of Mississippi was no match for No. 2/3 Florida softball (30-1, 6-0 SEC) this week as the Gators took down the Mississippi State Bulldogs (12-14, 2-2 SEC) at home in a pair of contests during the week and swept the Ole Miss Rebels (10-21, 0-6 SEC) in a three-game road series over the weekend. Florida outscored Ole Miss 37-6 over the course of the three games and made the most out of nearly every opportunity.

Senior first baseman Megan Bush set a new school record and now has a 19-game hitting streak after turning in a spectacular performance in which she combined to go 6-9 from the plate with 10 RBI, three runs and four walks. On the hill for the Gators all weekend was freshman right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers (16-1), who started all three contests and did not allow a single earned run all weekend. In 9.0 innings, Rogers only gave up five hits, three unearned runs and three walks while striking out nine batters. Also turning in stellar performances in the three-game set were senior second baseman Aja Paculba (4-10, 6 RBI, 5 R, 4 BB), freshman shortstop Cheyenne Coyle (3-11, 5 RBI, 4 R, BB) and senior left fielder Kelsey Bruder (4-6, 4 RBI, 5 R, 6 BB).

3 » Continuing to excel in only their second year in existence, No. 8/10 Gators lacrosse (8-1) took down another ranked opponent by defeating the No. 11/14 Syracuse Orange (2-4) 16-11 on Saturday at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville, FL. Sophomore attacker Ashley Bruns tied her career high (and school record) with six goals; she also notched an assist for a season-high total of seven points. Florida received plenty of scoring help from sophomore midfielders Kitty Cullen and Brittany Dashiell, each of whom contributed hat tricks. Since losing an overtime contest to North Carolina on Feb. 12 to start the regular season, UF is on an impressive eight-game winning streak.

4 » Competing for the 2011 Southeastern Conference Championship, No. 1 Florida gymnastics (17-2, 5-1 SEC) dropped a heart-breaker to the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide 197.225-196.975. The Gators won the bars and floor exercises, but the Crimson Tide used greater total margins in the vault and beam to improve their team total and capture the crown. After the event, Florida’s Rhonda Faehn was named 2011 SEC Coach of the Year for the fourth overall and second-straight time, and Alaina Johnson was awarded with 2011 SEC Freshman of the Year.

5 » Failing to qualify for the 2011 NCAA Tournament, Gators women’s basketball (19-14) accepted a bid to the 2011 Women’s National invitation Tournament and defeated the UMBC Retrievers (20-12) 59-47 in first-round action on Friday. Redshirt junior guard Jordan Jones scored a game-high 18 points for Florida, which will ply Florida Gulf Coast (28-3) in the second round on Monday at 7:05 p.m.

6 » No. 13 UF men’s tennis (11-5, 4-1 SEC) dropped a pair of head-to-heads over the weekend as they were defeated by the No. 3 USC Trojans (14-2) 4-3 on Thursday and Rebels (9-4, 3-2 SEC) 4-3 on Saturday. No. 6 senior Alexandre Lacroix lost all four of his events including both singles matches and both doubles matches as the No. 46 duo with teammate sophomore Sekou Bangoura, Jr.

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FOUR BITS: Pouncey, softball, lacrosse, WNIT

1 » Pittsburgh Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey has signed an endorsement deal with Core Synergy, a company that sells wristbands of titanium and silicone rubber that claim to hold a positive charge that reverses “the effect of pain in the body caused by negative energy fields. Other athlete “ambassadors” of the product include Philadelphia quarterback Michael Vick and Green Bay linebacker A.J. Hawk.

2 » No. 2/3 Florida Gators softball (27-1, 4-0 SEC) tore the cover off the ball on Wednesday, defeating the Mississippi State Bulldogs (12-14, 2-2 SEC) 8-0 and 18-1 in a doubleheader at Katie Seashole Pressly Stadium in Gainesville, FL. Senior first baseman Megan Bush (2-5, HR, 5 RBI, R, 2 BB) hit a grand slam in the opening game and tied a school record with a still active 16-game hitting streak. However, her offensive production paled in comparison to senior left fielder Kelsey Bruder (6-7, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 6 R) who blew up with a home run in each game. She also knocked in nearly more than third of the team’s 26 combined runs. Freshman right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers (13-1) drew the start in both games, earning a pair of wins while tossing 9.0 innings, striking out four and only giving up six hits and a single unearned run.

3 » No. 8/10 Florida lacrosse (7-1) saw success earlier in the week with a dominating 18-6 victory over the Colgate Raiders (3-4) on Tuesday at Donald R. Dizney Stadium. Sophomore midfielder Brittany Dashiell scored five goals and registered six points in the contest, both career-highs. She was joined by three other Gators (sophomores M Kitty Cullen, attacker Ashley Bruns and A Janine Hiller) as a foursome of players who registered hat tricks in the win.

4 » Florida women’s basketball, which finished the season a lackluster 18-14, earned a berth to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament and will face the UMBC Retrievers (20-11) in first-round action on Friday at 7 p.m. The game will be hosted at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, marking UF’s 17th postseason berth in 19 seasons.

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Free throw woes doom Florida again in 71-64 loss

Coming into Starkville, MS undefeated on the road and with a nine-game regular season winning streak against the Southeastern Conference West division, the No. 23/24 Florida Gators (16-5, 5-2 SEC) struggled mightily from the free throw line and eventually fell to the Mississippi State Bulldogs (11-9, 3-3 SEC) 71-64 at Humphrey Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.

Up 63-62 with 5:17 left in the game, Florida went cold from both the field and charity stripe, allowing Mississippi State to put together a 9-1 game-ending run. The Gators missed eight consecutive field goals and five of six attempts from the line, while the Bulldogs hit seven of their final eight free throw attempts to ice the game.

MSU started the first half on fire, connecting on five of their first eight shots from long distance. Taking a game-high 10-point lead early, they quickly coughed it up and allowed UF to put a dent in their deficit. Florida used a 10-2 run to tie the contest at 38, but Mississippi State would take a two-point lead going into halftime.

The Bulldogs came out of the break hot, using an 11-4 run to take a nine-point lead. The Gators answered with a 13-1 run of their own; it ended with a trey and two free throws by junior point guard Erving Walker, which gave UF its first lead of the game, 55-52.

Two triples from MSU G Dee Bost put his team ahead three, but Florida took the lead 63-62 and then tied it at 64 before falling apart at the conclusion of the contest.

All three of the Gators leads came in the second half, but their inefficiency from the line and beyond the arc doomed them in the end. Florida finished 9-of-19 from the charity stripe (47.4 percent) and only 5-of-21 from three-point range (23.8) percent. Mississippi State, after starting the game strong, went cold from three until the end of the second half. As a team, MSU finished 19-for-23 from the line.

Unlike the Gators, which saw all 10 of their players score, only four Bulldogs got the ball in the basket. Bost led MSU with 24 points and went 4-for-8 from downtown, forwards Kodi Augustus and Renardo Sidney each scored 16, and G Ravern Johnson contributed 15 important points.

Walker led Florida with 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting but was only 2-for-8 from downtown. Redshirt senior center Vernon Macklin scored 10 points, and senior F Chandler Parsons grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds to go along with nine points.

Sophomore guard Kenny Boynton, who is supposed to be one of the Gators best scorers, went an anemic 2-for-11 from the field and 0-for-4 from beyond the arc. Senior F Alex Tyus added six points and five boards.

Mississippi State has now won four of their last five meetings against Florida, which will likely be unranked once again when the new top 25 polls are released on Monday.

The Gators’ schedule does not get any easier going forward. Florida will face No. 22/19 Vanderbilt (Tuesday) and No. 16/14 Kentucky (Saturday) in consecutive home games next week. Both games will air live at 9 p.m. on ESPN, with College GameDay emanating from the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on Saturday.

Photo Credit: Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

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