Ahead of schedule

Ahead of schedule

This was supposed to happen next year. After sneaking into the NCAA Tournament last season, Florida rebuilt its roster by bringing in the nation's top recruiting class. Expectations were higher than the 2013 season, but no one saw this coming. The Gators left Tuscaloosa on Sunday with a series sweep, pushing their conference lead to three games and their RPI to No. 2 in the country.

Those numbers were supposed to be the case next season after the roster's youth had time to develop.

Florida won't lose much from this team's roster, likely catcher Taylor Gushue and reliever Ryan Harris plus some other possibilities. The youth on this year's roster was supposed to produce an inconsistent season but showcase that the talent on the roster would bring the program back to the elite levels it was from 2009-13.

The inconsistency has still come, but it has just been a while since it showed up. After winning one of four games in a round robin against Florida Gulf Coast and Illinois, the Gators sat at 6-6. Since that point, Florida has won 27 of its last 36 games.

There are multiple arguments to be made for why that happened. The pitching staff has been dominant and Harrison Bader's return added depth to a lineup that needed it. The tinkering Kevin O'Sullivan did with the lineup in the early stages of the season has paid off, and he has mostly settled on a lineup depending on whether Florida faces a right-handed or left-handed pitcher.

While all of those things help, the difference has been the maturation of young players.

Preseason success only means so much, but when the team worked out in the fall and spring scrimmages, it ended most days with a freshman looking like the best player on the field. When the 2014 season started, that couldn't have looked further from the truth.

Dane Dunning and Brett Morales were Florida's best pitchers during the offseason scrimmages. Both freshmen carved through the Florida lineups and looked poised to carry that into the start of the season. Then both stumbled out of the gate and another freshman, Logan Shore, took the reigns as the team's ace and hasn't looked back. Shore has now emerged as a favorite, of not the favorite, for SEC Freshman of the Year.

A.J. Puk was dominant at times in the offseason, but mechanical issues slowed his progress early in the year, only to see him put it all together and have strong relief outings in recent weeks.

Freshman mature at different times. For some, it doesn't come until their sophomore or junior seasons. On the mound, it has come in a hurry for multiple Florida freshmen in recent weeks for everyone but Shore, who has barely stubbed his toe on the way to leading the SEC with six wins. Other freshmen have had their moments throughout the early part of the season, but instead of hitting a freshmen wall, the youth on the mound looks to be hitting its stride as the season comes to an end.

It was no more obvious than Saturday. After reigning SEC Pitcher of the Week Aaron Rhodes lasted just 2.1 innings, the Gators were facing a 3-1 deficit at a top-20 team. It could've imploded for the freshmen that came out of the bullpen. Instead, they held Alabama at bay while the Florida offense scored three runs to win the series.

It started with Puk, who threw 2.2 shutout innings despite giving up two hits and two walks. His low-to-mid 90s fastball was too much for Alabama hitters to pick up, especially out of the unique release point presented from his 6-7 frame.

Then it went to Dunning. Trusted for only 14.1 innings on the season before Saturday, O'Sullivan went with his instincts. The Florida coaches have been raving about the right-hander in recent weeks, and they threw him into a hornet's nest for easily the biggest outing of his career. After six straight balls to start the outing, Dunning settled in to give up only three base runners in 2.2 innings while striking out three hitters.

Left-hander Kirby Snead, another freshman, came in to fill his role of getting left-handers out. And true to form, he did. Florida clinched the series by getting 5.2 scoreless innings from freshmen on the road against an offense in the top half of the SEC in almost every statistic.

But it hasn't stopped on the mound.

The bats are starting to come around, too. The Gators had three freshmen -- designated hitter Pete Alonso, left fielder Ryan Larson and right fielder Buddy Reed -- in the opening day lineup. Bader's return and Larson's game-winning hit against Missouri last weekend has turned the third outfield spot into a platoon, and both continue to produce.

Larson is hitting .368 (7-19) in SEC play with above average defense, including throwing out a runner at home in Florida's 4-3 win on Saturday. Reed is hitting .231 on the year, but his average in SEC play is up to .263. His strong defense and high ceiling have earned him more at-bats.

Alonso went through a midseason drop in production, but his .320 average in SEC play is third on the team of players with more than 20 at-bats. His three home runs in SEC play are tied with Gushue for the team lead. His defense likely won't ever be better than average, but he was expected to be a middle of the order bat in the future. His production has turned the talk about his bat from the future to the present.

Puk, who delivered the game-winning RBI single on Saturday, is also getting time at the plate and hitting .353 (6-17) in SEC play.

John Sternagel was the final piece to the puzzle. He's still splitting time at third base with junior Josh Tobias, but Sternagel has been getting a majority of the starts in recent weeks. In SEC play, Sternagel is hitting .298 with one home run and has made just two errors in the field. Third base has been a revolving door under O'Sullivan, but the freshman looks like he could provide some stability to the position.

The MLB draft will take place June 5-7 and determine some of the finer points of what next year's roster will look like. But no matter what Florida players or recruits chose to do, the foundation has been set for the future of the program with the production coming from the freshman class.

Add this current group of freshmen to a strong sophomore class, and you've got all the makings for one of the top teams in the country during the 2015. That's what was expected if everything went right this season.

But no one expected the team's youth to mature as quickly as it has and become the team's strength. Because of that, aspirations for Omaha in 2015 have been shifted up one year.

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