CARY, N.C. -- When Tampa headed to the NCAA Division II baseball World Series last year, most were ready to present the team with the championship trophy before the first game was played.
That’s how high expectations were for the Spartans, who had secured an incredible fifty-one wins against just two -- two -- losses. So, yeah, just go ahead and engrave the trophy with Tampa’s name on it, pass out the championship T-shirts and caps and let’s be done with it.
Tampa lost to Southern Indiana in the opener and then fell out of the tournament following a heartbreaking loss to Colorado Mesa in the following Friday’s last-chance game. A year after the fact, the crushed look of disappointment on head coach Joe Urso’s face is easy to remember.2014 wasn’t supposed to end that way, not for a powerhouse juggernaut like the one Tampa had back then. After an almost entirely new team came on board this year, who knew if the Spartans would be able to make it back to the World Series?
At least a couple of starters remain from last year’s squad, guys like Stephen Dezzi and Giovanny Alfonzo. They remember what it was like not to be able to finish things off last year. Still, Urso’s focus has not been on avenging the team’s loss in last year’s World Series. Instead, he’s been busy forming a cohesive unit with a virtually all-new cast of characters.
“As far as a message coming from me, it hasn’t been about [redemption] at all,” Urso said. “It’s been more about what this group’s identity would be all about because there’s so many new guys. Some groups, they have so many returners, you can kind of build on a year like last year. That’s not the case this year with so many new guys.”
This year’s version of the Tampa Spartans was not nearly as dominate, going 39-13. That did, however, include a March 1 exhibition victory against the Phillies. The Philadelphia Phillies. The Major League Baseball Philadelphia Phillies. The Philly Phanatic Philadelphia Phillies.
Tampa had played only one other exhibition to a big-league team, losing something like 11-0 to the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I thought it was a big highlight of our season for sure,” Urso began. “Yes, it was just an exhibition game. Yes, they didn’t have some of their superstars in the game. But for us to go in and accomplish what we did was a memory these kids will have forever. It was a huge deal for our university being all over ESPN, all the news channels and major magazines. It was a huge accomplishment.”
Thing is, it might have been just a little too much of a confidence boost. Over the next five weeks or so, Tampa played not much better than .500 baseball. They dropped three straight to Nova Southeastern in early April, and then the opener of a three-game set against Lynn on April 10.
Forget about the DII World Series. Urso was worried at that point about making it to the regional tournament. Toss in the fact that two top pitchers -- Trey Oest and David Heintz -- went down during the season and things did not look good at all.
“I thought if we split one of these games, our regional bid is going to be in jeopardy for the first time,” Urso said of the team’s doubleheader against the Fighting Knights on April 11. The team responded, sweeping the doubleheader and losing just once more over the course of the season’s final ten games.
Tampa then swept through the south regional, fairly easily in the first three games before taking a 5-4 nail-biter in ten innings over Florida Tech in the title matchup.
They’re back in the DII World Series for the third time in the last four years. Urso expects to win, but he’s not counting on it. No way. Not after last year.
“It doesn’t matter how many superstars are on this team compared to last year or the other years,” Urso said. “[Expecting to win] is not going to change. They know the goal is to win the championship. That’s what separates the good Tampa teams from the great Tampa teams. They want to be remembered, and there’s only one way, unfortunately, to be remembered at Tampa. That’s to win it all.”