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Gator Bats outlast Huskers; Advance to Winner's Bracket

Stillwater, OK- Controversy ensued when the 28-27 Florida Gators were not only granted an NCAA tournament bid, but were not listed in the selection committee’s ‘Last 4 In’.  The Gators will admit the 2024 season had fallen short of expectations, fresh off of a national championship appearance in 2023, the Gators returned All-American two-way sensation Jac Caglianone.  With Caglianone, and a slew of talent in Gainesville, many had penciled a return to Omaha for Kevin O’Sullivan’s squad.  That’s why they play the games, but with being granted the 3 seed in the Stillwater Regional, the Gators were given new life, and the second best odds to win the regional hosted by Oklahoma State, despite being the third ranked team.  

Florida second baseman, and leadoff hitter, Cade Kurland got the scoring started early in the ballpark known for high scoring affairs.  His homerun looked like a fly ball off the bat, but O’Brate Stadium’s allergy to fly balls allowed the ball to carry over the fence before some of the XXXX in attendance had found their seats.  It wouldn’t come easy for the Gators, though, as they were tasked with facing Nebraska ace Brett Sears and his 2.00 ERA.  

Sears, after being named Big Ten Pitcher of the Year, helped the Huskers win the Big Ten Tournament for the first time last weekend.  Against Purdue, Sears worked through six innings, striking out nine and giving up just two runs on two hits.  In the Big Ten Championship, Husker Head Coach Will Bolt called on Sears to close the door on Penn State and their Cinderella run in Omaha.  Sears delivered, making quick work of the Nittany Lions, sending the Husker-Heavy Omaha crowd into a frenzy and striking midnight on Mike Gambino’s first year in Happy Valley.

That same Husker-Heavy crowd completed the six hour trek to Stillwater and made their voices heard when Nebraska left-fielder Gabe Swansen continued his torrid stretch in the first inning, lacing an RBI double to left-center, much like the one that gave Nebraska the lead in Sunday’s Big Ten finale.  This time, it knotted things up against Florida starter Liam Peterson, who was getting his first taste of the postseason at the tail-end of his strong freshman campaign in Gainesville.  Peterson had last thrown two weeks prior, in a key victory against the Georgia Bulldogs that had helped push the talented but underperforming Gators into the field of 64.  Florida Head Coach Kevin O’Sullivan felt confident in giving the first-timer the ball, stating he had been the Gators’ best this season. 

Peterson and Sears both yielded moments of discomfort, in a park that has seen those moments escalate in the form of big flies and bigger innings.  Though it was the Gator offense that broke through in the 3rd inning.  Florida right-fielder Ashton Wilson lined a double down the left-field line, scoring Caglianone and Tyler Shelnut to give the Gators a 3-1 advantage.  Wilson entered the Stillwater Regional with six hits on the season, but in the spirit of a new season, his performance marked the first three-double performance for a Gator since Pete Alonso did it in 2016, also in the postseason. 

 The Florida bats continued to hammer strikes and find the outfield grass.  Sears entered the NCAA Tournament having given up 62 hits on the season, while giving up a season-high, eight, to Iowa on April 26th.  Florida collected hit numbers nine and ten in the fifth inning, though great plays from the left-side of the Husker defense kept the deficit at two.  

While the Gator bats continued to produce, Peterson settled in to stifle the Huskers, even through chants of “Go Big Red” and drawn walks, inciting a “ball six” chant the fans in red.  Nebraska handed the ball to Drew Christo to start the sixth inning, who promptly gave up a leadoff double to Michael Robertson, but again it was the Husker defense willing and able to lay out for the Husker pitching staff to keep it 3-1.  

Following the defense heroics, the Huskers huddled in the dugout in the middle of the sixth inning, seemingly striking a “now or never” moment for the offense that had been held to just 1 hit after Swansen’s RBI double in the first.  Husker Head Coach Will Bolt said this conversation was centered around calming down and remembering the setting, no lead is too big in this ballpark.  Again, it was Swansen who answered the call, crushing Peterson’s 2-2 pitch over the left-field wall to cut the Gator lead to 3-2.  The Husker dugout was awakened, and so were the faithful in red behind them.  O’Sullivan thanked Peterson for his efforts before handing the ball to reliever Fisher Jameson, who gained help from catcher Luke Heyman in nailing Dylan Carey as he attempted to steal second base.  The putout marked Heyman’s ninth successful throw down of the season.  

The Gator offense returned to life in the eighth inning, as Kurland’s single drove in Dale Thomas from second to extend the Florida lead to 4-2.  Christo was able to minimize the Gator damage, intentionally walking Caglianone for the third time, marking his 21st, 22nd and 23rd intentional pass of the year before getting Heyman to ground out.

Florida turned to Brandon Neely, who entered the contest with a 6.55 ERA, striking out 70 across 55 innings of work this season.  Neely earned one out in the seventh before benefitting from the eighth inning insurance run.  Neely loaded the bases, and without a teammate warming in the bullpen, O’Sullivan tasked the veteran reliever to escape his own jam.  In emphatic fashion, Neely forced a fly out and strikeout to hold the Husker threat scoreless.  

As the Gator bats were asked to add to their lead, it was again the previously unspoken-of Wilson, clubbing a massive solo shot off of the scoreboard to extend the Florida lead to 5-2 in the 9th inning.  The late offensive efforts proved to be enough for the Gator ballclub that had entered the NCAA Tournament following a lackadaisical 6-3 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament.  Liam Peterson was awarded the victory following his seven strikeout performance across five and a third innings of work, giving up four hits, three walks and two earned runs.  Sears was given his first loss of the season following giving up a season-high ten base hits in five innings of work.  

Looking ahead, O’Sullivan says it will likely be Caglianone on the mound in Saturday’s winners bracket contest against the winner of Oklahoma State and Niagara.  Nebraska will likely turn to Mason McConaughey, who dazzled in the Big Ten Tournament, in an early elimination game.  The Huskers intend to learn from their conference tournament experience, where they lost their opener before storming back and winning the event. 

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