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Florida Gators multisport star Riley Cooper enjoying his hectic schedule

GAINESVILLE — He has gone nearly one full year nonstop, from football to baseball, then spring football, summer baseball, back to playing receiver for a national champion football team. Now he's playing outfield on the Florida baseball team.

So to say things are hectic these days for Riley Cooper would be an understatement.

Yet he wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's definitely not easy, trying to juggle two sports at such a high level as this is, but also juggling school and trying to keep my grades up," Cooper said. "It's definitely tough. But I want to do it and I'm going to keep giving great effort to get it done. I'm having a blast."

Cooper was chosen in the 15th round of the 2006 Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Philadelphia Phillies coming out of Clearwater Central Catholic High. Instead, he attended Florida on a football scholarship, where he has earned two national championship rings.

Last season, with football coach Urban Meyer's blessing, Cooper, 21, decided to return to the diamond. After spring football practice, he spent the summer in Virginia playing for the New Market Rebels in the Valley League, where he hit .231 with three home runs and 12 RBIs. It was invaluable experience.

"It's helped me out tremendously, just so much," he said. "I'm so much more ahead at this time this year than I was last year. I'm excited to see how well the rest of the season goes."

It's only eight games into the season, but Cooper is hitting .360, and last week he hit his first career grand slam in a victory over Eastern Michigan.

For now, Cooper still considers himself a two-sport athlete, taking it day by day, assuming the future will take care of itself. He's having the time of his life. And, as always, looking for ways to improve.

"I'm real excited," he said. "I'm happy with the way the season started, but I've still got a lot of work to do. The pitchers out here, a lot of them have got good velocity and with me playing baseball only three or four months out of the year, it's tough to get your timing back. So that's kind of what I'm working on right now. I'm pretty pleased with how well I've done so far, but I've still got a lot of work to do."

SENSE OF URGENCY: Having lost four of their past six, and with two regular-season games remaining, the Gators basketball team is no longer talking about taking it one game at a time and focusing on the task at hand. The singular purpose is much clearer.

"We need to win, that's basically what it is," sophomore G Nick Calathes said. "The season ain't over. There's still a lot to accomplish. We can still make the NCAA Tournament and make our goal."

Actually, that's debatable. ESPN's Joe Lunardi on Sunday night had the Gators as the first of the last four teams out of the NCAA Tournament. Florida travels to Mississippi State on Wednesday night, then closes the regular season with a home game against Kentucky on Saturday. It currently is tied with the Wildcats for third in the SEC East. And frankly, after Sunday's game, the players said the team's emotions run the gamut right now.

"Honestly, probably a little bit of everything," freshman Erving Walker said. "Of course we're fired up to get out there and win and play ourselves into the tournament. And then, honestly, there probably is a little sense of panic. Not in a bad way, but just knowing that it's coming to an end and we've got to get it done.

"I would say the team, myself and as a team, nobody wants to go to the NIT. So there probably is, knowing that there's two (regular-season) games left, panic. Not in a bad way, like scared. But just some type of urgency, wanting to win and get back out there. I think that can be good.''

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Florida Gators multisport star Riley Cooper enjoying his hectic schedule 03/02/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 8:11pm]
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