GAINESVILLE, Fla. - The Florida Gators have been waiting a year for this.
Players and coaches never said it publicly, rarely even mentioned it privately. But returning to the College World Series was the one common goal everyone in the program shared, and not solely because it's the pinnacle of college baseball.
It had more to do with how close the Gators got to winning it all last season. Florida lost to South Carolina in the championship series and spent months thinking about what could have been. Not making things any easier, the Gators played all season amid sky-high expectations that came with returning nearly every starter.
Nonetheless, the Gators are back in Omaha, Neb., with their sights set on winning it all.
"That was the thing that was hard for our team to deal with," coach Kevin O'Sullivan said. "It was one of those things that was the big elephant in the room. Nobody wanted to talk about it. It was kind of just there. It's hard to get to Omaha, No. 1, but to add it that you're supposed to get there and there's so many things that can happen in this game that can keep you from getting to your ultimate destination, it has not been an easy road."
The Gators (47-18) secured their third consecutive trip to Omaha by sweeping North Carolina State in a super regional. Their reward? Florida opens Saturday against the two-time defending champion Gamecocks, who have won 21 consecutive games in the NCAA tournament.
South Carolina's streak includes 11 in a row in Omaha.
"I was excited," Florida reliever Greg Larson said. "Another chance to play them. They've had a great run. Just kind of thinking back to last year, we were going to run into them I felt like sooner or later, so why not first game in Omaha?"
Florida won three of four games against South Carolina this season, including the last three meetings. But recent success will mean little, if anything, when the teams take the field Saturday.
"Last time's last time," designated hitter/left-handed pitcher Brian Johnson said. "Doesn't matter what you did last time. Doesn't matter if you scored 10 or you didn't score any."
Florida has a good team, and everyone knows it.
Catcher Mike Zunino is a finalist for the Golden Spikes Award, given annually to the nation's best amateur player, and anchors a deep and versatile lineup that features five players selected in the first nine rounds of last week's Major League Baseball draft. Florida also had four pitchers drafted, including ace Hudson Randall and the team's top three relievers: Larson, lefty Steven Rodriguez and closer Austin Maddox.
All that talent was evident when the Gators started the season 20-1.
Nonetheless, Florida endured ups and downs, injury and adversity, and a late-season hitting slump in which the Gators lost eight of 17 games down the stretch.
O'Sullivan expected to deal with those kinds of things. The biggest challenge was trying to keep players focused and hungry during it all.
"It is challenging," O'Sullivan said. "It's one thing to be the underdog and not have expectations, but it's another when there are expectations. It's just not the external people. You in turn start putting pressure on yourself and you feel the pressure of trying to get your team back to where they should be, supposedly.
"And then you get the draft as well. I mean, that's the other part of it, and it's right there at the end of the season. There's been a lot."
Now, though, the most meaningful games are here. And how the Gators respond could make everything that happened in the last year an afterthought forever.
"I think we're in a spot right now where everything's kind of behind us and we're just taking it one game at a time," Larson said.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.