As the 2021 season arrived for the Miami Hurricanes, some across college baseball questioned whether they’d be able to win their opening series inside a brand-new Florida Ballpark against No. 1 Florida.
The then-No. 11 ranked team may have been knocked down at first in Gainesville, Fla., but stood up strong and secured two-straight wins — one of them a 13-inning thriller that kept the Sunshine State rivals on the edge of their seats through the final out.
And over three-and-a-half months later, Miami (32-19, 20-15 Atlantic Coast Conference) gets to revisit where it all began.
From lineup changes to sweeping shifts in its starting rotation to questions over injuries, the Hurricanes have battled to earn a No. 2 seed in the Gainesville Regional inside that same ballpark — one that hosted a classic of a marathon to start the next chapter of one of baseball’s grander rivalries.
“Just of course excited, you know knowing that I guess what would be a foregone conclusion, we were going to be in the tournament,” Hurricanes head coach Gino DiMare said. “Had an idea maybe we’d go to Gainesville once we saw Florida State was going somewhere else. We pretty much had an idea this was gonna be the place where we were going.”
That same excitement simmered throughout the Hurricanes’ locker room on Monday upon their viewing of the NCAA Baseball Championship Selection Special on ESPN2.
“It’s great, it’s a place we’re familiar with and we all know that Florida is one of our rivals,” designated hitter Raymond Gil said.
Though the arrows had pointed toward the Hurricanes returning to Alfred A. McKethan Stadium for multiple weeks, playing Florida will have a requisite for DiMare and his Hurricanes this time. The Gators may be hosting an NCAA Regional for the 17th time in history, but No. 3-seeded South Alabama of the Sun Belt Conference awaits Miami on Friday.
“Right now, we’re just trying to pull up as much information as we can on schools, it’s like a hurry-up-and-get-ready type of a deal,” DiMare said. “South Alabama obviously is our first opponent, so we’re trying to get as much information on them as we can because we don’t know anything about them.”
No guarantee exists for a rematch between the two fierce rivals, and DiMare — whose team has also fallen out of the Top 25 rankings in all six major baseball publications earlier this year — is well aware of what it will take to have a shot at such rematch.
“Florida, ourselves, we do know a lot about each other there, but you can’t get to Florida if you don’t take care of the first game, which is going to be South Alabama,” DiMare said. “This is the time of the year where we really have to step it up. It’s been a tough year for us from an inconsistent standpoint. We’ve shown signs where we can play really, really good and we’ve shown signs where we can’t; this is not the time for that. If you’re gonna have any hiccups, you’re not going to be playing very long, so we need to be at our best as we go forward because the team that plays the best is gonna be the team in Omaha.”
As they’ve done since first taking the diamond in February, the Hurricanes turn to their veterans — those that remember the hostile atmosphere of the Starkville Regional in 2019 — all too well.
“It will be huge,” Gil said of the prior experience of playing against another Southeastern Conference opponent in Mississippi State. “Mississippi State was really loud, and those fans were on you, so I’m pretty much prepared for any other environment, and we can help out the young guys on to what to look forward to and what to expect.”
“My freshman year we ended up going to Mississippi State, and that atmosphere was out-of-control amazing,” second baseman Anthony Vilar said. “We’re just ready to get back into that atmosphere, get it back with all that energy, fun baseball, competitive baseball, and just win some games.”
The leadership of those veterans, however, has not yielded the expected results in ACC competition at times this season, as the Hurricanes were favored to finish in first place in the Coastal Division for the second consecutive season.
“You get caught up in all this different stuff in the chemistry and the leadership, and it’s all important don’t get me wrong,” DiMare said. “To me, it’s about certain guys where you gotta clean up your mechanics, you’ve gotta have a better approach at the plate, you’ve gotta lay off of these certain pitches, you can’t be undisciplined, we need you to get on base, we need this guy to hit the ball the other way — these are things that take care of it all…We’ve gotta be able to do things to help us be successful and we know what they are, and we have a number of guys that came back from last year’s team, they understand that this is for a lot of them their last opportunities to make a run at this in their UM uniform. We need to really buckle down and make sure we’re doing the right things and us coaches make sure we’re communicating the right things.”
Florida Ballpark is expected to be welcoming a full-capacity crowd, adding a similar atmosphere to what the Hurricanes are used to when traveling to their rival’s park annually.
“Well, when we played there earlier in the year, I remember obviously the COVID restrictions, it wasn’t but a few thousand people, if that maybe,” DiMare said. “I know that the capacity’s a lot more than that, so I’m sure this’ll be interesting because the NCAA has opened up the crowds to where they can be full capacity, and here, we and a lot of teams especially in our conference played in front of no crowds or very small crowds…They can handle it in a very positive way and be excited that finally we got fans out there, which is a great, great motivator but also it can work against you, too.”
With a rollercoaster ride of a 51-game regular season and two defeats in the ACC Baseball Championship, a one-game mentality has been all the Hurricanes have embraced concerning their mentality, whether they face one of the SEC’s best.
“I also mentioned to them just understand that there’s gonna be upsets,” DiMare said. “There are going to be teams that are not going to be hosts that are going to win Regionals. Then they go to Super Regionals and there are gonna be upsets there, and you gotta make sure you understand this thing is wide open. There are 64 teams, everybody is 0-0 and these weekends go by very, very quickly and again, the hottest teams are going to be the teams that advance.”
Their bats may have not remained hot from the start to the end of each series, but turning towards a finely-tuned starting rotation and effective defense has given the Hurricanes their drive.
“We have been playing excellent defensively, and we’ve been pitching well,” DiMare said. “Our bullpen certainly has been a big part of that, along with the guys starting. Jake Smith’s been great and some of the other guys, but we gotta find a way to swing the bat better and score runs; it’s plain and simple.
Without a firm sense of certainty on their matchup, the Hurricanes will look towards upholding their brand of baseball, as displayed toward the end of the regular season.
“It’s just to take it one game at a time and try to play clean baseball and make it out of the Regionals,” Gil said. “Our goal is to try to make the deepest run we can, that starts off with South Alabama.”
A pitching matchup has still yet to be announced. First pitch is scheduled for 5 p.m.