By: Alexis Brudnicki
Lars Davis is setting the bar high in his rookie season on the college coaching circuit.
After an eight-year minor league career, the 29-year-old former catcher joined the University of Florida as the Gators’ volunteer assistant coach in the fall. Now, the team is heading to the College World Series in Omaha after making it look easy in both post-season series they hosted in Gainesville.
“We thought we were the team to beat in both our regional and super regional,” Davis said. “We have a very good team. They’re playing at a very high level right now. There were some tense moments in the regionals and super regionals – we had some close games and innings – but in the end it all worked out well for us.”
The native of Grand Prairie, Alta., knew from the moment he joined the squad and they stepped out on the field together that they were capable of the kind of run they’ve been on. The Gators have had contributions up and down the roster, and have found success in every facet of their game.
“We knew we had a great team right from the very beginning,” Davis said. “We’ve started anywhere from three to six freshmen in games this year. We knew we had a great recruiting class coming in, plus the returning sophomores and the upperclassmen – everybody contributed a lot – so we knew right from the get-go that we had a good team…
“And it’s not just one area of the team that’s carried us all year. There are games that we’ve pitched exceptionally well…and then there are games where our offence will pick up our pitching when we haven’t pitched well on a given day. We’re a very complete team and one thing that has stuck out for us the whole year is our defence. We’ve had a phenomenal defence that has played well ever time we’ve gone out on the field.”
Not only does Florida have a talented team, the offence posting a .299/.383/.455 slash line over 65 games so far this season and the hurlers combining for a 3.22 ERA through 579 innings with 168 walks to 522 strikeouts, but the Gators have also gotten hot at the right time.
“A lot of baseball is [about] when you play a team, not just necessarily who they have on the team,” Davis said. “At any level of baseball and in any sport, you always want to peak going into your post-season.
“There are some other teams around the country that have done just that and they’re playing very good baseball right now as well, so it’s a combination of both [being good and being hot]. We have a good team and we’ve played well throughout the year, but at the same time we’re starting to get everything firing on all cylinders and we’re doing it at the right time, heading into Omaha.”
Florida will matchup against Miami to start their College World Series run on Saturday. The Gators haven’t faced the Hurricanes since the second weekend of the year, and know they will likely get a very different team than the one they took two out of three games against in February.
“Teams evolve over the course of the year, pitchers get better, hitters make adjustments – it is definitely a different Miami team than we played,” the Canadian coach said. “Any team that makes it to be one of the final eight in Omaha is going to be a good team, so we have to be ready for them. If we play our game, we’ll have a pretty good chance.”
Seriousness aside, there is some pressure on the Albertan stemming from his championship household. Davis’ wife Katie, the athletic trainer for Florida’s softball team, has been with the Gators for two seasons and has been a part of two championship-winning squads. Florida became just the third back-to-back winners in Women’s College World Series history.
“They clinched their second consecutive national title on Wednesday, this one over Michigan,” Davis said. “I’m kind of playing catch up right now. There are some lighthearted jabs going around the office that in the two years she’s been here she has two national championships, so I guess I’ve got to keep on pace in my first year. It’s been a lot of fun.
“They have a great softball team, a great coaching staff there led by Tim Walton; they’ve done some fantastic things. Anytime you can repeat a national championship in any sport, especially with the amount of turnover there is in college sports, it’s an amazing feat.”
While they are 100 per cent committed to the Gators, as graduates of the University of Illinois – where they met – Davis and his wife are also continuing to follow the Fighting Illini on their historic run on the road to Omaha. Dropping its first matchup to Vanderbilt – where Katie also previously worked – Illinois needs wins on Monday and Tuesday to advance.
“I absolutely have been,” Davis said of keeping up with the Illini. “I’ve talked to their head coach Dan Hartleb, he was the head coach while I was there as well. The volunteer assistant coach Kyle Hudson is actually one of my good friends and I played with him when we were at Illinois together, so I talk with him on a fairly regular basis, congratulating him that they’ve been doing well all year. They had a 27-game win streak earlier in the year.
“They’re a good team. They have two good pitchers in [Tyler] Jay and [Kevin] Duchene, who have been phenomenal for them all year long – not to say that the rest of the team isn’t doing well, but they’ve had a great run. Hopefully they have a chance to make it to Omaha. If they end up beating Vandy, it would be the first time Illinois makes it to Omaha.”
Technically, the Illini are also in a super regional for the first time in program history, though as Davis pointed out, the team did make it down to the final 16 teams in 1998, only to be knocked out in a 7-6 single-elimination game by Florida in Gainesville. When that matchup took place 17 years ago, it was still considered a part of regionals, cutting from 48 teams to the final eight in that round.
“Illinois is definitely a program on the rise,” Davis said. “I believe it’s two or three seasons now they’ve made it to regionals and they got to be a national seed this year, then obviously they won the regionals and got to host the supers, so it shows they’re a very good program and they really keep contending year in and year out.”
The Illini have also had a steady stream of Canuck backstops year in and year out, since before Davis arrived at the school. Former big leaguer Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.) was the first, followed by Florida’s current coach, who welcomed both Aaron Johnson (Sussex Corner, NC), and current senior Kelly Norris-Jones (Victoria, BC).
“Each successive catcher has talked to the next one coming in,” Davis said. “Robbie talked to me. Robbie actually hosted me on my recruiting trip. I talked to Norris-Jones; I also talked to Aaron Johnson as well before he came in 2007. They found a good crop of Canadian catchers and stuck with it. It’s good to see that we can kind of keep a little bit of a tradition going there.”
Davis is hoping he might see Norris-Jones again in Omaha, and is looking forward to welcoming whatever Canadians might join him. Virginia’s Daniel Pinero (Toronto, Ont.) has already secured a spot at the College World Series for the second consecutive year and will start the weekend against Arkansas. TCU and Jeremie Fagnan (Calgary, Alta.) play the third game of their three-game set against Texas A&M Monday night, the winner advancing.
“Hopefully we get a few Canadians over there in Omaha,” Davis said. “Well, I’m hoping that the Gators take it all, but that would be great. It just shows the quality of Canadian baseball, that we have not just players and coaches, but [Canadians] in all facets of the game represented in college baseball.”