GAINESVILLE (AP) - Between the lost opportunity at last year's College World Series, the lofty expectations placed on this year's team, the 20-1 start, the 9-8 finish and all the recent conversations leading up to Major League Baseball's amateur draft, the Florida Gators have dealt with a gamut of emotions.
With all that behind them, the Gators (45-18) can finally focus on their No. 1 goal: returning to Omaha and making a run at the program's first national championship.
"I think our team's in a really good place right now," coach Kevin O'Sullivan said Friday.
Florida, the overall top seed in the NCAA tournament, needs two wins in the super regionals to reach the CWS for the third consecutive year. Standing in the way is North Carolina State (43-18), which is trying to get to Omaha for the first time since 1968. The teams open a best-of-three series Saturday at McKethan Stadium.
The Gators have home-field advantage and more postseason experience.
"We've been in this spot three years in a row now," said right-hander Hudson Randall, who will start Saturday's opener opposite unbeaten Wolfpack ace Carlos Rodon. "The guys on the team know what to expect, we know what we're getting into this weekend and we feel fairly confident in ourselves and we're ready to go."
Florida didn't look so ready a few weeks ago.
The Gators faded down the stretch, struggling to string together hits and losing just about every close game. It was a stark contrast to Florida's fast start to the season, when the nation's top team seemingly could do no wrong.
"Every team goes through a lull, whether it's the beginning, the middle or end," O'Sullivan said. "The thing as a coach is you just don't want it to be at the end. ... We went through it as well; everybody has, but I think we're playing very well, and that's the most important thing."
O'Sullivan had reason to be concerned, too.
Not only were the bats cold, but the MLB draft was looming. Everyone expected Florida's roster to get raided - and it did.
All those mock drafts and questions about the draft did little to distract the Gators. Instead, they had one of the best weekends of the season. They dominated the Gainesville Regional, pitching a no-hitter in the opener and then outscoring Georgia Tech 21-5 for a two-game sweep that clinched a spot in the super regionals.
The next two days were equally enjoyable as Florida had nine players drafted - eight of them in the first 10 rounds. Catcher Mike Zunino of Cape Coral went third overall to Seattle. Left-hander Brian Johnson also went in the first round.
Shortstop Nolan Fontana and reliever Steven Rodriguez were second-round picks.
Right-hander Austin Maddox (third round), outfielder Preston Tucker (seventh), Randall (seventh), outfielder Daniel Pigott (ninth) and reliever Greg Larson (20th) also were drafted.
"We've handled this whole draft thing as well as we probably could this year," O'Sullivan said. "The players have been mature about it. The expectations, I think they've handled it great. I think they've been waiting for the postseason, and I think they're excited about playing this weekend."
And having a chance to get back to Omaha.
Florida advanced to the championship series last summer before losing twice to South Carolina. The runner-up finish motivated players through the offseason, and with nearly everyone returning, positioned the Gators as a preseason favorite to win it all. They handled the expectations well enough to earn the No. 1 seed.
Now they're focused and playing like it.
"Every year since I've been here we've gotten a little closer and a little closer and the team's gotten a little more talented and a little more experienced," Tucker said. "I think this is the right time to (peak). We've got a good combination of things and I think we're playing all right now. We've got to play well this weekend and hopefully things work out for us."