2021 did not end on a particularly high note for the Florida Gators’ athletics program with what I’m going to refer to from here on out as the “Disasterilla Bowl.” But all things considered, 2021 was still another overall strong year for the school known as the “Everything School.”
Everlasting memories were made, championships were won, and the Florida Gators’ brand is one year more powerful and prestigious. As the calendar has just flipped to 2022, it’s time to acknowledge those responsible for all of that with our 2021 In All Kinds Of Weather Awards!
Let’s get into it!
Freshman of the Year: Ben Shelton (men’s tennis)
You just had to figure that when Shelton, a blue-chip prospect from Gainesville’s Buchholz High School, chose to play for his father Bryan and his Gators, he was going to be special. And special he was.
The freshman posted an impressive 28-5 record on the singles court in his inaugural season with Florida, mainly at #5 singles, and was a key piece of the Gators’ first national championship team in men’s tennis history (the program has been around since 1932). In fact, he clinched that national title with his three-set victory in the national championship match vs. Baylor. Combine that with his individual national championship by winning the 2021 ITA Singles national championship, and the coach’s son was an easy call here.
Professional Freshman (aka rookie) of the Year: Jonathan India, Cincinnati Reds (baseball: 2016-18)
India already won the MLB’s Rookie of the Year Award for the National League, so it makes for some nice congruence to give him this award, too. (A quick history lesson: India, the former fifth overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, became the first Cincinnati Red to win NL Rookie of the Year this century.)
The former Gator infielder batted leadoff and started at second base for most of the season, helping guide the Reds to their highest win total since 2013 (83). Along the way, India posted some supremely impressive statistics in his inaugural season in the bigs, batting .269 with a .376 on-base percentage, a .459 slugging percentage, 21 homers and 69 RBI. The Reds missed the playoffs, but India provided their team with a spark and a real sense of hope for the future.
Clutch Performance of the Year: Kendrick Calilao’s walk-off homer vs. FSU (baseball: 4/13/21)
2021 was not the year for the Florida Gators baseball that many had hoped, but that’s not to say it was completely devoid of historic moments. And after coming off the bench to pinch-hit, Kendrick Calilao delivered one such moment in a scenario that every kid who plays Little League dreams of.
With two outs in the bottom of the tenth inning against FSU, Calilao got ahold of one and blasted a lightning bolt over the left-field wall to give the Gators a walk-off win over their biggest rival. The win snapped a two-game losing streak to the Seminoles after the Gators had won the previous eleven.
Male Athlete of the Year: Sam Riffice (men’s tennis)
Riffice, the captain and heart and soul of Florida’s men’s tennis team, enjoyed what might have been the single greatest year anybody has ever produced in the history of the Gators’ tennis program. Think I’m engaging in hyperbole? Let’s look at the facts.
First, Riffice rolled to a remarkable 32-7 singles record on the year, (almost entirely at #2 singles, meaning he faced the other team’s second-best player in each match, or in individual tournaments) capped off by a straight-sets win in the team national championship match over Baylor. That gave the school its first-ever team national title in men’s tennis.
Then Riffice entered the individual NCAA singles tournament, where school allegiances are dropped and the top 64 singles players in the country face off to see which individual player is the best- and he won that, too, upsetting the national #1, #2, and #4 seeds along the way. Swimmer Bobby Finke has to be acknowledged here given his performance in Tokyo, but Riffice gets the nod for being the pioneer of his sport and captaining his program to heights it had never reached before in 90 years of existence.
Female Athlete of the Year: Marlie Monserez (volleyball)
Barring another pandemic, Marlie Monserez accomplished something for the Florida Gators that will be extremely difficult for anyone to ever do again: she grabbed All-American honors in two different seasons in one calendar year. Thanks to COVID pushing back the 2020 volleyball season into the spring of 2021, there were two full volleyball seasons this calendar year, and Monserez, an elite setter from Windermere, excelled in both of them.
First, she helped guide Florida to the “2020” Elite 8, leading the way with 866 of the team’s 1125 total assists and being recognized as an All-American honorable mention nominee. Monserez then took the Gators to the Sweet 16 in the second of 2021’s two seasons, providing 1182 of the entire team’s 1402 assists on the year and earning second team AVCA All-American honors. Several Gator gymnasts had phenomenal seasons as well, but the fact that Monserez maintained her excellence in two different seasons in one calendar year pushed her over for this honor.
Professional Athlete of the Year (National): Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons (football, 2018-20)
Why wasn’t Kyle Pitts, a guy who exceeded the hype of being the highest-drafted tight end of all time, the “Professional Freshman (aka Rookie) of the Year,” you might ask? Because Jonathan India had a fantastic season of his own and Pitts was such an obvious lock for this one either way that I decided to limit everybody to one award each, and make sure one more Gator got recognized.
Pitts absolutely terrorized the NFL in 2021, hauling in 1,018 yards’ worth of 66 different Matt Ryan passes. That easily earned him a spot not only in the NFL Pro Bowl, but in the record books as both the Falcons’ all-time rookie receiving yards leader (breaking receiver Julio Jones’ mark) and the second rookie tight end to accumulate over 1,000 receiving yards after Mike Ditka did it back in 1962. And those numbers are made all the more incredible by the fact that Atlanta’s offensive line has been porous at best and comically horrendous at worst throughout the season, meaning Ryan doesn’t have as much time to operate as he would like.
So for all those reasons and more, Pitts is the runaway winner for the Professional Athlete of the Year. (And depending on the severity of his hamstring injury, Pitts may actually get to break Ditka’s record in the season finale on Sunday. He’s only 58 yards away.)
Professional Athlete of the Year (International): Caeleb Dressel, Team USA (swimming, 2015-18)
How do you get billed as perhaps the greatest swimmer of all time, or at least a considerable rival to Michael Phelps’ ownership to that claim, in the runup to the Olympics- and then go to Japan and absolutely shatter that hype? I’m not sure. Maybe Caeleb Dressel can answer himself.
The former Gator swimming phenom grabbed not one, not two, but FIVE gold medals in Tokyo this past summer: the 4x100m freestyle, 50m freestyle, 100m butterfly, 100m freestyle, and 4x100m medley (butterfly lap). Oh, but that’s just the beginning of the levels of impressiveness in his Olympics. The latter four of those gold medals didn’t merely prove he (or his team) was the best in that race; they set Olympic records. And two of those Olympic records— his 49.45m time in the 100m butterfly, and his team’s 3:26.78 record in the 4x100m medley— set world records. Meaning, those are the fastest times in those particular races to ever be recorded. EVER.
With stats like that, the International version of Professional Athlete of the Year was an even bigger runaway than the National version. And the good news? Thanks to COVID pushing the 2020 Olympics into 2021, we’re now just two flips of the calendar from watching Dressel look to add to his medal count in Paris.
Moment of the year: Mike White and Keyontae Johnson embrace after beating FSU (men’s basketball 11/14/21)
Anybody who reads or follows In All Kinds Of Weather knows that I am not a big believer of men’s basketball coach Mike White. He’s pretty much already sunken his own battleship there. And I’m not alone in that belief. But on one magical Sunday afternoon in Gainesville, his team provided a feel-good moment that will never fade.
The Florida Gators had lost seven straight to FSU, but the last of those losses carried an entirely different array of painful feelings for Gator fans as its star forward, Keyontae Johnson, suddenly and mysteriously collapsed on the court early in the contest and people feared the worst. He was diagnosed with a heart condition that appears to have ended his basketball career, but survived and now serves as a bench coach for Florida.
Fast forward to the 2021 edition of the rivalry, which didn’t start out especially well for Florida. But after trailing at halftime, the Gators angrily unleashed seven and a half games of frustration out on the Seminoles and blew them away in the second half, rolling to a 71-55 victory to finally snap that streak. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, White went over to his guy and hugged him tight.
He’d been there by Johnson’s bedside in the Tallahassee hospital in the wake of his collapse, depriving himself of sleep and sanity as he wanted to be the first to hear any update the doctors may have had, and remained by his side all the way through his return to school and his team’s bench. So this win was about way, way, way more than just snapping the Seminoles’ spear and streak. This one was a cocktail of feelings- a triumphant “WE DID IT, WE FINALLY BEAT THESE GUYS!” moment mixed with a healthy dose of “This is for you, Keyontae. We can all say we love you, but this win is how we prove it!” and even a little bit of “Thank you for everything” thrown in there.
Also worthy of honorable mention shoutouts in this category are two football plays, and the only 2021 Gator football-related combination of words in these entire awards, because that’s what happens when you go 6-7: one, Diwun Black’s hit on kickoff coverage early in the game against South Florida, and two, Dameon Pierce’s helmet-less run vs. FSU.
Anybody who follows Gator football knows Black’s long-winded path to Gainesville, and though he didn’t play anywhere near as much as he should have (thanks for that, Dan Mullen) he at least got one spoonful of his dream to come true by plastering the USF return man following the Gators’ first touchdown of the game. Here’s hoping to seeing much more of him in the future.
As for Pierce, the grit and determination he showed all year long was wasted from a results standpoint (probably because he never even touched the ball ten times in a game until after Mullen was fired) but that grit, determination, and love for his Gators will never be forgotten. Perhaps nothing embodies all of that more than Pierce’s not giving a shit when his helmet was ripped off inside FSU’s five-yard line early in the fourth quarter, and continuing to plow ahead into what can only reasonably be described as danger. And though the play was blown dead, let’s all forever remember that Pierce did indeed get his touchdown a few plays later.
Team of the year: men’s tennis
The Florida Gators men’s tennis program has historically been very good, borderline great, but never could quite break through and win a national championship. Think FSU baseball, but with an even longer history of existence. You know what that looks like: a whole bunch of Sweet 16 appearances, a handful or so of Elite 8 appearances, and trips to the Final Four in 2000, 2005, and 2019.
That is, until captain Sam Riffice, Duarte Vale, Andy Andrade, Josh Goodger, Blaise Bicknell, Ben Shelton, Johannes Ingildsen, Brian Berdusco and Will Grant came along and completely rewrote the Gator record books.
First, the Florida Gators raced through the SEC schedule with a perfect 12-0 record to claim the conference crown. They reached the SEC Tournament Championship match, where they were defeated by Tennessee. But the Selection Committee determined that they’d done plenty to justify being given the #1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. And Florida more than lived up to that seed, cruising past South Alabama, South Florida, Texas A&M, Texas, and Baylor to claim its first-ever national championship.
And because there are only so many ways I can rewrite the same thesis about how awesome the men’s tennis program was in 2021: head coach Bryan Shelton was the one who recruited them, set the lineup, and coached them to a national championship, so he hereby concludes this year’s awards by being anointed as coach of the year.