CARY, N.C. -- When Tampa head coach Joe Urso says that he wondered at one point if he would have enough pitching to get through the 2014 season, you almost feel sorry for the guy.
The truth is, he did lose the majority of arms from last year’s NCAA Division II national championship team. Of the three pitchers who started 10 or more games in 2013, all three are gone. Three made 20 or so appearances in relief, and yes, they’ve hit the road, too.
Just five of the 16 players who appeared on the mound last season returned to the Spartans this year. Yet if Urso was truly concerned about his pitching corps, he shouldn’t have been.Preston Packrall and David Heintz – two of those five returning pitchers – helped fill the void with identical perfect 10-0 records. Trey Oest, a sophomore transfer from DI Virginia, went 8-0 and tossed a complete game shutout against Florida Southern to give the Spartans their second consecutive South Region title.
The win moved Tampa here, to the NCAA Division II national championships. Tampa opens its title defense Saturday with a 1 p.m. ET matchup against Southern Indiana.
So far, the squad has enjoyed one of the most dominant seasons in the history of NCAA DII competition with an almost unbelievable record of 51-2. That’s a smoking hot winning percentage of .962, the best ever in DII.
Only a 13-5 loss at Georgia College on Feb. 16 and a home 13-6 defeat at the hands of Florida Southern have kept Tampa from a perfect record so far this season.
The Spartans went 47-12 on their way to the national championship in 2013, and if winning it all put a target on the team’s back, it’s been a hard one to hit.
“Last year, the talent was there but when you look at the way the season went, there was a lot of inconsistency,” Urso said. “This year, they play the entire game hard. They believe they’re going to be able to come from behind if they get down. It’s a focus you’ll see in the playoffs that normally you don’t see the whole regular season.
“These guys have had that focus. It’s amazing. They’ve had that focus from Day 1. They knew they wanted to make an identity for themselves, and not just be compared to the 2013 championship team. They knew that they wanted to be known for what they were going to accomplish this year.”
Urso’s is a team that plays loose. Stephen Dezzi picked up the nickname Batman, but it’s not because he’s the team’s leading hitter. That’s not exactly the way it works at Tampa. Dezzi was in charge of making sure the team’s bats made it to the bus, so he became Batman.
He responded by painting his face … wearing a Batman mask … and a T-shirt.
This is the outfit whose rally cry last year was “Hotbread!” and because of that, brought a working toaster into the dugout. This is also a team that saw senior Jacob Tillotson play all nine positions May 4 in the second game of the regular-season-ending doubleheader against Florida Tech.
For the record, Tillotson struck out the side in the ninth and added two hits, two runs and two RBI. Urso doesn’t do four-hour grinding practices, either. He has a plan each day and sticks to it, and that’s helped his team not only to success on the field but in the classroom as well.
Spartan players the last couple of years have earned the highest combined GPA of Urso’s career at the school.
“It’s a long season, and I believe if these guys are going to come out and work hard for me every day, I should make it a fun environment for them,” Urso said. “It is business, but it’s an environment that is fun, that you want to learn in, where you want to come to practice every day.
“The season does become a grind, but it’s, ‘I want to get to practice. I want to go get my swings in. I want to get my ground balls in. I want to do what it takes to get better, because I know I’m going to go out there and it’s going to be a fun atmosphere.’”
A key element of the atmosphere surrounding the Spartans is what Urso calls “positive peer pressure.” When his core group of senior leaders do an extra session in the weight room, most if not all of the rest of the team will follow. They’re there in the batting cages before practice, getting a few more swings in.
Urso, of course, will step in and lay down the law when he needs to … this isn’t the wild, wild west after all … but he usually doesn’t need to.
“The senior leadership is so great,” Urso said. “When things go wrong, I’m able to go to my captains and say, ‘Hey, we had a bad practice today. I don’t know if you guys were out too late or if you guys just didn’t come focused. Take care of it, or I’m going to take care of it.’ I don’t have to say another word.”
Whether that’s enough to win another national championship remains to be seen, and only the coming week will tell for sure.