Tampa entered the 2016 DII Baseball season in familiar territory. Head coach Joe Urso has his team as the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper Preseason No. 1 on the heels of their seventh national championship in program’s history.
This is nothing new for the Spartans. Take 2014 for example, when they entered the season No. 1 after claiming the 2013 national championship. They would carry that ranking much of the way, reeling off a unbelievable 54-4 record until their loss to eventual runner-up Colorado Mesa ended their season just short of the title game.
Many had them tabbed atop the preseason rankings last year as well. They entered the season with a roster full of experience and a chip on their shoulder from the heartbreaking end to 2014. They would ride that ranking up and down, dropping as low as No. 10 en route to yet another national championship.
So here they are again. But this team is much different. The current Tampa starting lineup returns a mere two offensive threats from their championship lineup last season.
“There’s seven new guys in the starting lineup,” Urso said. “But people are going to expect us to win a national title. We lost a lot of good power hitters. For us to become a great team, they’re going to have to score a lot of the small ball style of runs.”
Senior third baseman Cody deNoyelles and senior outfielder Casey Scoggins lead a lineup that is full of transfers and new faces. They are the elder statesmen of the bunch, the lone offensive weapons left over of the reigning national champs.
“Everyone is looking for us to lead by example,” Scoggins said of he and deNoyelles’ role. “It has definitely been a challenge to try to get everyone on the same page with so many new faces. We just try to show what the coaches expect. Now that we got a couple games under our belt, I think it will be easier on me and Cody. Everyone can see what we do as a team.”
This rendition of the Spartans seems to fit Urso’s new shift from waiting on the big home run to a small ball philosophy. deNoyelles is their returning slugger with a mere nine home runs, but he was able to spread hits out last season with 13 doubles and two triples while going a perfect 6-for-6 in the stolen base department. Scoggins is a speed player, known for getting on base, drawing walks, stealing bases and scoring runs.
“Last year, we definitely knocked down some fences,” Scoggins said of the lineup. “This year, it’s going to open up the gates for me a little bit more. I can play my game, more speed and more steals. We are more of a situational team. We lost all those middle of the order guys, but we've shown we can hit some home runs, doubles, triples — it’s going to be fun. We’re going to be an exciting offense to watch this year.”
Scoggins’ speed also helps with his defensive prowess. He took home the Gold Glove and National Defender of the Year Award in 2015. That defense will be invaluable as this team transitions from the long ball to a team reliant on pitching and defense.
“Typically in the past, we’ve been a power team that really focuses on the hitters,” senior lefty ace Michael Calkins said. “This year we found that we really have to be focusing on the pitching. We’re just going to have to change our concept up a little bit. We have such a great deep staff this year, that it looks like they can carry us far.”
Calkins leads a pitching staff that is a bit more stable — or at the very least more familiar — as three seniors return to anchor the starting rotation. Calkins leads the staff fresh off a dominating Most Outstanding Player performance in the NCAA championships where he put the icing on the cake of their championship season with a complete game against Catawba in the finals, hurling nine innings of one-run, four-strikeout ball.
“You take it inning by inning,” Calkins said of his title clinching performance. “Every inning in that kind of game means a lot. You don’t think about the whole game, you think about the next pitch. We had some great defense and some timely hits, and it helped me go all nine.”
Fellow lefty Brad Hencke joins Calkins after making 16 starts last season. Righty David Heintz also returns from an injury plagued 2015, and he has made 25 starts over the past two seasons. Eager to join them in the rotation is Florida transfer Brett Morales, who is expected to make his highly anticipated debut next weekend -- albeit out of the bullpen until he is ready to be stretched out -- after a rough fall dealing with injury.
When you throw in names like Chris Williams — who Urso feels could arguably start on most teams — Kevin Martin — who Urso describes as having one of the best curveballs he’s seen from a left-hander — and Chris McCormick, the Spartans are seven deep in the pitching department.
“It’s fantastic,” Calkins said of the Spartans depth in pitching. “It’s one of the best parts about our team. We know once we finish our jobs as starters, we have five or six guys that can come in and we know they can shut the door for us for four or five innings. That makes it a lot easier for us to pitch, as well as having that great defense knowing that they are going to make plays for us.”
“If we’re going to win it’s going to be pitching and defense, the old fashioned way,” Urso said. “To have a Michael Calkins who’s pitched on the biggest stages, he brings that experience to us and he’s got the mentality to be a very good Friday night guy for us.”
Urso credits much of the success from the pitching staff to his associate head coach Sam Militello. Militello is a Tampa alum who made it to the big leagues with the New York Yankees. He knows how to groom his pitchers for long-term success.
“He does such a great job with these pitchers and taking care of their arms,” Urso said of Militello. “We take it very serious in making sure we are developing these guys and getting them ready for pro ball.”
UT has long been known for not only being a winning program, but for producing talent that gets noticed come June in the Major League Baseball draft. Last year alone, five of their players were drafted, while one signed as a free agent. This is something UT strives for and prides themselves upon.
“We talk a lot about the development process,” Urso said. “Winning is very important at the college level, and development can get pushed to the side at times. We try to really focus on the development side. We’re strict on pitch counts. Our practice plan is what separates us from some other programs because of the experience in the Minors and Majors from myself and our coaching staff.”
Urso feels he is lucky to have a few players that may in fact be on the big league radar come season’s end. Morales may be the biggest name to keep an eye on, but Scoggins, deNoyelles, Heintz and Calkins may all get there shot as well.
Their Sunshine State Conference schedule alone is a daunting task as Florida Tech, Nova Southeastern and Lynn are all top 20 teams with Florida Southern and St. Leo receiving votes.
“There’s nothing like playing great competition night in and night out to prepare you for a national title run and that’s what our conference does,” Urso said of the SSC. “When you look at the teams that have consistently been at the top of our league, that’s what it’s all about. Getting to go against those guys in a three game set, teams that are experienced in the postseason and loaded from top to bottom, it’s always fun. We beat up on each other pretty badly unfortunately, but it prepares you for the regional tournament. I think that’s why you see so many people from our conference — if we get out of this region — seen as favorites.”
Throw in an out of conference schedule that includes an exhibition rematch against the Philadelphia Phillies, a game with No. 19 Seton Hill and a championship game rematch against No. 2 Catawba and this could be one of TU’s hardest challenges yet.
“Obviously we’re looking forward to Catawba and even the Phillies again,” Scoggins said. “But I’m looking forward to the next game. If you look ahead that’s where teams can creep up on you and catch you. That was a learning experience from last year. When we beat the Phillies, we started looking ahead and got comfortable. We started losing some games, and then we weren’t even in the first regional poll. That opened some people’s eyes. That’s what I’m trying to remind the new guys: one game at a time.”
That Phillies win last season was one for the ages. The Spartans became on of four collegiate teams to beat a Major League team in an exhibition game when UT won 6-2 in comeback fashion.
“It was one of the best wins of my career,” Urso said. “A lot of it is because of what it did for our University putting us in the national spotlight on ESPN and all of these magazines. You go into a game like that without expectations of winning, just for the experience. Normally you aren’t going to come out of there with a W, but that grand slam that Giovanny Alfonso hit to put us up was like the excitement you feel in a World Series.”
Urso has had quite the run as a Spartan. You can argue no one has been prouder than he has being able to wear the UT red and black. He won a national championship as a player and has now won four as a head coach. He is decorated with several awards as both a coach -- as he is as the reigning National Coach of the Year -- and a player, as he was as a two-time Second-Team All American. There was little left Urso needed to achieve to fill out a very impressive resume, aside from another championship or two, of course. When the Spartans surprised him this offseason at their ring ceremony and retired the longtime UT great's jersey, Urso was humbled and overwhelmed.
“That was big time for me,” Urso said. “I take a lot of pride in putting this uniform on. Coach Militello and our AD Larry Marfise surprised me by retiring my jersey. They put me in tears that night. It meant a lot to me to be thought of with Lelo Prado,Tino Martinez — who was the best hitter to come through here — and Sam, who of course is the best pitcher to come through here. To be the fourth one was real special to me.”