Jonah Girand takes winding path to Florida’s starting lineup
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Jonah Girand’s path to the NCAA baseball tournament had more movement than a knuckle ball.
The 23-year-old Florida catcher started at nearby Santa Fe College, left after one season, returned home and took a job in retail. He was away from baseball for a year before ending up at another junior college near Orlando.
He started playing again, got his associates degree and reached out to Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan last spring.
His timing was impeccable. The Gators were losing starting catcher Mike Rivera and backup Mark Kolozsvary, and in need of some depth.
“I just thought he maybe could be a good bullpen catcher,” O’Sullivan recalled.
Girand turned out to be a lot more. The junior stepped in for injured captain JJ Schwarz (hand) last week, homered three times in four games and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Gainesville Regional. He also caught two first-round draft picks, right-handers Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar.
“It’s been crazy, having been out a year to playing in the regionals with the Florida Gators,” Girand said. “It has been an amazing opportunity.”
It’s not over, either.
Girand likely will be behind the plate again this weekend when overall No. 1 seed and defending national champion Florida (45-18) hosts Auburn (42-21) in one of eight best-of-three super regionals. The winner advances to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.
For Girand, getting to Omaha would be another trip on his unpredictable journey.
“It’s amazing these stories that happen,” O’Sullivan said. “You sit up here and he’s Regional MVP and he wasn’t recruited by anybody.”
Girand began his college career at Santa Fe in 2015. After failing to hit his weight in 19 games, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder returned home to the Orlando area and got a job. It didn’t take long for him to realize he would rather deal with curveballs than customers.
He revved up his workouts, put out some feelers and traded in his name tag for a jersey number. He landed at Seminole State College in nearby Sanford.
“It sits in the back of your mind as to whether or not you’re going to get back to it,” Girand said.
Playing big-time college baseball was still Girand’s goal, even after hitting .256 in 39 games with the Raiders in 2017.
So he contacted O’Sullivan, who had seen Girand play in high school and in summer leagues. Girand figured it was a long shot, but O’Sullivan needed help.
“It’s kind of a weird story,” O’Sullivan said. “I remember him being a big, strong kid.”
Girand flashed potential during fall practice, but was buried on the depth chart behind Schwarz and highly touted freshmen Cal Greenfield and Brady Smith. It stayed that way through much of the season, with Schwarz starting 45 games behind the plate. Greenfield started eight, and Smith five.
Girand spent his time in the bullpen.
He got his chance after Schwarz took a ball off his right hand in the final regular-season series at Mississippi State last month. Schwarz broke a bone in his hand and would miss several weeks, at the very least.
In the Southeastern Conference Tournament, O’Sullivan made a gut decision to start Girand over Greenfield and Smith. Girand doubled in his first at-bat as a starter.
“It just looked right,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s hard for freshmen to play this time of year. There’s just a lot that goes into it. You just make a decision. You have a hunch, and (Jonah) makes you look good. I don’t know any other way to explain it.”
Girand made O’Sullivan look great in the regional.
Girand homered in each of Florida’s first two games, the second one a solo shot that turned out to be the winning run against Jacksonville. He was at his best with the team’s season on the line.
Trailing 2-1 against Florida Atlantic in a win-or-go-home finale, Girand delivered a towering, two-run shot to left that put the Gators ahead for good.
“It’s awesome. Jonah has worked so hard this whole season, even in the fall,” teammate and SEC player of the year Jonathan India said. “I think he was our best hitter in the fall. He works at it, works at his craft and now it’s paying off for him. Now he has his chance to play and he’s showing why he should play. I’m happy for him.”