GAINESVILLE — If he had decided to walk away, declared he had done about all he could for the Florida baseball team, few could have faulted former Plant High star Preston Tucker.
After all, Tucker had excelled in three seasons. He was SEC co-freshman of the year in 2009, a second-team All-SEC selection in 2010 and last season a first-team All-SEC selection when he hit .308 with 15 home runs, 55 runs, 28 walks, 23 doubles and a team-high 74 RBIs in 72 games.
Tucker is the school's all-time leader in NCAA Tournament at-bats (97), hits (35), home runs (nine) and doubles (eight). He needs seven RBIs to surpass Brad Wilkerson's school record of 214.
So when the Rockies drafted the first baseman/outfielder in the 16th round in June, Tucker's return seemed like a long shot.
But ultimately, he decided on one more year.
"There were two main factors," said Tucker, who can be drafted by any team in June. "One was getting a degree. Not a lot of guys get to say they have a college degree, and you (still) get a chance to play pro ball. And another one is I think we have a great team this year.
"I think as hard as it is to believe, I do think we have a better team (than last year). We've got more depth in the pen. We've got more talent in the infield and outfield. So knowing that I get to come back to a team that has a chance to do really well this year was a big factor. I like it here. I am enjoying it, and knowing it's my last year, I'm going to enjoy myself."
Among those eagerly awaiting Tucker's decision was Gators coach Kevin O'Sullivan. Last year, his team lost in the World Series final. The year before, the Gators went 0-2 in the World Series. And when Tucker was a freshman, they lost in the Super Region.
"You've got to let the process work its way out," O'Sullivan said. "We talked on the final day of signing (after the) draft, and he … indicated he was going to come back. There are a lot of guys on that last day you are waiting to see what happens.
"But most certainly to get a guy back like him who is going to go down in the record books as one of the best hitters that's played here, there's no question there was a huge smile on my face and from all the coaches. To get back a guy you could plug in the middle of the order and solidify things, it was certainly a huge lift for us."
Tucker is one of four seniors the Gators are counting on for leadership. The Gators return the majority of their everyday lineup, their entire weekend rotation and several relievers.
UF opens the season tonight against Cal State Fullerton (7, FSN) ranked No. 1 in the four major polls — writers, coaches, Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball — and it's part of Tucker's job as a leader to make sure it handles the hype properly.
"(The ranking) doesn't mean you have a talented team. It means they think the players on your team are pretty good," Tucker said. "The next few weeks, we're going to figure out what guys are going to play what roles, how well we can mesh as a team and what we can do in good situations."
Whether he wins a national title remains to be seen, but barring injury, Tucker will leave with the school's RBI record.
"It just means there are a lot of guys on base when I get to hit," he said. "And that goes to the guys hitting behind me and in front of me. The other team's pitcher is going to want to pitch to me because we've got some pretty good guys behind me."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]