Familiar SEC foes Florida, LSU anxious to square off

14 hours ago
Joe Menzer | SEC Network

Photo: SEC Network

Florida and LSU have combined to play 136 baseball games this year. But none against each other.

That is about to change in a huge way.

Beginning at 7 p.m. ET Saturday at Charles Schwab Field in Omaha, Nebraska and televised on ESPN, the Gators and Tigers will engage in a best-of-three series to determine the 2023 national champion as they wrap up the Men’s College World Series.

The stakes could not be higher. The interest could not be ramped up more.

And the Southeastern Conference could not be more at center stage of the college baseball universe as these two storied programs square of in the MCWS championship finals for the second time in six years. They also faced each other in the MCWS finals in 2017 when Florida won its first and thus far only national title.

And although they have not yet faced each other this season, having toiled in opposite SEC divisions, that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar with one another. They’ve also had their eyes on each other since arriving at Omaha on opposite ends of the MCWS bracket, with Florida (53-15) a national 2-seed and LSU (52-16) a 5-seed after beginning the season ranked No. 1 in the country and holding onto that mantle for much of the spring.

“You look at the bracket and you look on the other side, it’s like, ‘Yeah, this is not a surprise to me who we’re playing,’ ” LSU coach Jay Johnson said.

Johnson’s counterpart at Florida, Kevin O’Sullivan, could not agree more. He emphasized that the grind of a long SEC regular season and tournament, plus the Gainesville Regional and Super Regional in the NCAA Tournament, has prepared his team for this showdown.

“This has not been an easy road for us,” O’Sullivan said. “Obviously getting through the SEC schedule was not easy. Going through the losers’ bracket in the Regionals, playing (another SEC foe in) South Carolina in the Supers was very difficult. Three one-run games out here (in Omaha) and now the season is going to end with two SEC teams playing against each other. And we didn’t have an opportunity to play each other. It should be a lot of fun.”

Florida won the SEC East in the regular season with a 20-10 conference record and were SEC regular-season co-champions with Arkansas, who posted the same record in the SEC West and finished a half-game ahead of LSU, which went 19-10.

Players from both teams professed deep mutual respect for each other during press conferences Friday in Omaha.

“LSU obviously is a very historically good program,” Florida’s Wyatt Langford said of the Tigers, who are seeking their seventh national title, which would rank second all-time only to the 12 owned by Southern California. “Their lineup is very good and one of the best in the country. And their pitching staff is also good. Kind of makes sense that we match up with them for this championship series. We’re all excited to get playing.”

LSU’s Dylan Crews returned the compliment.

“I’m from Florida so I know a bunch of those guys on the team,” Crews said of the Gators. “I’ve played with them. I have a lot of respect for them. They have great starting pitchers, a great bullpen, great lineup, no holes in their lineup. So we’ve got to be ready to go. It’s not going to be a cakewalk. We’ve got to be mentally prepared and ready to go.”

LSU’s Cade Beloso added that looking across the field at Florida is almost like looking in a mirror.

“I’d say one thing I admire about them is the confidence they play with. It’s kind of similar to us,” Beloso said. “They’re a gritty bunch and they all play with a chip on their shoulder.”

Johnson said both teams are built with a mixture of youth and experience that have served them well on their dual journeys to this best-of-three series for college baseball’s ultimate prize. He pointed to Langford, BT Riopelle and Josh Rivera — the three veteran Gators who took the press conference podium Friday — as evidence.

“The reality of it when you look at the SEC West and SEC East, you cannot win without age, experience and all those types of things,” Johnson said. “I mean, I think I know who the three players were who were up here (on the podium) for Florida. Those are grown men. It’s not a little boy’s league. And you have to have some age and experience underneath you.”

And experience gained playing in the SEC is the best kind to have underneath you, according to those who have it. There is a reason SEC schools have combined to win a total of 14 national championships in baseball, including eight of the last 12.

“This excites me a lot. Being a part of the SEC, we’re the best conference in baseball. And I believe that all the way,” Langford said. “So just to match up with them kind of makes sense for all the fans out there and everyone that knows baseball. So we’re all excited to play.”

LSU’s Tre’ Morgan added: “It just shows that’s why we’re here. That’s why we came to play in the SEC. We believe it’s the best conference in baseball. And I mean the history shows where that trophy has gone multiple times.”