Thursday, May 23, 2013

Ospreys' Storied Program Returns for Continued Success

It was as if Mother Nature decided yesterday since North Florida had been away from the A-Sun Championship for two-plus years, so what was another 14 hours?

Once they finally took the field on Thursday, the Ospreys made the most of their reappearance in the championship, defeating Lipscomb 6-1 in their first game back since 2010. North Florida returns to the championship in the midst of its best season since 2006, when the Ospreys finished second in the A-Sun with a 20-10 record in A-Sun play and a 34-21 mark overall.

The game was the first A-Sun Championship contest under Head Coach Raymond “Smoke” Laval, who took over from the program’s chief architect, Dusty Rhodes. Under Laval’s leadership, UNF is 97-68 in three years and the Ospreys make an impressive return to the A-Sun Championship.

Laval inherited a program built for success, and brought with him his own impressive coaching resume. Laval went 241-159 with three NCAA regional appearances in his first head coaching job at Louisiana-Monroe. Then in 2002, Laval took over at LSU, where he led the Tigers to two College World Series berths, two top-10 finishes and a 210-109-1 record.

Now he continues to build upon the rich history of success created from scratch by his predecessor Rhodes more than a quarter century ago.

The namesake of North Florida’s home field, Rhodes began UNF’s program from scratch at the NAIA level in 1988. He took the opportunity and built it into a national powerhouse en route to becoming one of the most successful coaches in college baseball history.

With more than 1,100 wins to his credit, he is definitely among a prestigious group of coaching legends. He led UNF to 16 postseason appearances, including five trips to the College World Series (two in NAIA and three in NCAA Division II). In January of 2009, he was chosen by his peers to be inducted into the American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

In 2005, Rhodes finished as the national runner-up in the Division II College World Series, falling in the championship game. In his other four World Series appearances, Rhodes led the Ospreys to third-place finishes out of eight participating teams.

He has also pushed the Ospreys to six conference championships, seven No. 1 rankings (three in NAIA and four in Division II) and has coached 22 All-Americans while compiling an 879-420 record at UNF and an overall mark of 1,182-538 in 30 seasons as a collegiate head coach.

After an extraordinary NCAA Division II resume, Rhodes upped the ante and continued to grow the program into a rising star and giant killer in Division I. From the time the Ospreys began playing in Division I in March of 2006, under Rhodes they recorded nine victories over ranked teams, including a 4-3 record against in-state rival and SEC power Florida.

In 2008, Rhodes led the Ospreys to wins over No. 6 Florida State, No. 13 Miami and No. 23 Florida, marking the first time in school history that UNF recorded wins over all three state schools in the same season.

In his illustrious career, Rhodes was honored as a conference or district coach of the year eight times. In the Peach Belt Conference, he earned coach of the year honors in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005. When the Ospreys played in District 25 in NAIA, he was named coach of the year in 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1992.

He also earned his region’s coach of the year honor in 2000, 2001 and 2005, after leading UNF to the Division II World Series each year. In 1989 and 1991, he was tabbed the Rawlings NAIA Area V Coach of the Year.

Armed with the program’s rich history of success and led by the play of seven All-Conference selections and a veteran coaching staff, the Ospreys check in as the No. 3 seed and with national relevance. It is no accident that UNF is ranked among the Top 30 teams in the nation in 14 statistical categories, along with another 14 Ospreys ranked in the Top 50 statistically as well.

UNF is now 13-9 against the championship field, and is now a winner of four of its last five games. The Ospreys’ effort in their win against Lipscomb seems to indicate that they are ready to make their 1-2 record in the 2010 A-Sun Championship little more than a piece of its impressive history and a distant memory.

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