The Tampa Spartans have become the benchmark of Division II baseball in the past decade. Head coach Joe Urso has led his teams to four Division II national championships since 2006, winning eight regional championships along the way.
Sitting at 5-1, they are off and running with championship aspirations yet again.
As successful as UT has been, last season was a “down” year for this baseball powerhouse, though it was a season other programs would envy. UT put up 41 wins in '16, its lowest total since 2012. For the first time in three seasons, the Spartans missed out on a trip to Cary, N.C. to defend their title.
Part of the reason was inexperience. The lineup had seven new faces that weren't there for UT's 2015 championship.
This year is another story. The Spartans return an experienced roster, highlighted by second baseman Laz Rivera, Baseball America’s preseason DII Player of the Year.
“I believe when you return seven of your nine hitters that you will definitely have more confidence,” associate head coach Sam Militello said. “These guys have had a year or more in our system, know what we like to do offensively and understand the hitting plan we put in front of them. I think a big confidence boost is getting our shortstop Kevin Santa back, who we lost for the second half last year.”
Militello and Urso have been together for nearly 30 years. Their journey started as two of the most successful players in UT's history. They continued to the next level, where Militello had a stint with the New York Yankees and Urso became a minor league All-Star before turning to managing. They returned to Tampa in 2001, reeling off 710 wins and four national championships in the 16 years since. Add in Jose Jimenez -- who won two titles as a player at UT and two more as an assistant coach -- and this trio has become a dominating force in DII.
“I 100 percent believe the bond Joe and I have has led to our success,” Militello said. “We have been together so long that we know what the other person is thinking before he thinks it. He trusts me 100 percent with the pitching. You don’t find that these days. He will ask my opinion often, and we make a lot decisions together. He treats me like a head coach, and I respect him for that.”
Militello, a UT Hall of Famer, has yet another fine pitching staff to work with this season. Garrett Cave, the anchor of the rotation, already is settling in nicely with his new team. The Florida International transfer picked up the first Sunshine State Conference Pitcher of the Week Award of the young season and is already 2-0.
“I knew that I would be able to make an impact right away,” Cave said of his transfer. “I heard great things about Sam [Militello]. That made me excited to work with someone that knows what it takes to get to the next level. The expectation to be successful here at Tampa is what sold me. Coach Urso holds everyone accountable and expects the most out of us on and off the field. A program doesn’t win seven national titles by mistake. I wanted to 'drink the punch,' per se, and try and win title No. 8 with them.”
Cave was both a reliever and a starter over his first two seasons. He enjoyed an all-star summer in the Cape Cod Summer League, leading the league in saves while striking out 34 over 19.3 innings.
“I think my time in [the Cape Cod Summer League] and Division I have been an outstanding learning experience,” Cave said. “Facing good hitters creates a challenge and makes me a better pitcher. I had a lot of success in the [reliever] role this summer and in the past. Relieving really fits my personality and allows me to be very dominant. Likewise, I believe that I am a good enough athlete and pitcher to handle the starting role as well. For the past six months, I have been working toward being a better starter and have found that I enjoy both roles equally.”
Cave is a hard-throwing righty. He is armed with four pitches, though he's most comfortable with his four- and two-seam fastballs. It isn’t simply that he blows people away with his fastball — as he did in his 10-strikeout debut for the Spartans — nor is it his command of his curve, change and cutter that makes Cave the special pitcher he is.
“I believe Garrett’s biggest strength is his competitiveness,” Militello said. “This brings out the best in him and not just on game day. It drives him throughout the week to prepare himself for his next start. That same competitiveness on the mound can sometimes be his enemy, too. He is learning how to control it especially in situations where he has gotten away from his delivery a bit. He is learning how to slow things down some to make adjustments, but keep his aggressiveness.”
The Spartans kick off a three-game series against a formidable Southern Indiana team this weekend. Cave will get his first look at a DII program with a deep history of high-quality postseason experience.
Whether they win or lose this weekend, the Spartans are focused on the steps that will take them back to the national championship.
“I did come in expecting to win a championship,” Cave said. “I’m not going to transfer in, go through the motions and be happy with being 'OK.' The 5-1 start is a good feeling. Yet, whether we were 5-1 or 1-5 this team is a great staff to be a part of. I knew from the first week of fall, when I was still getting to know everyone, that I had made the right choice.”
“The expectations are the same every year,” Militello added. “We expect to compete for a national title every year. Our players understand that when you put on the Tampa uniform, there is only one goal.”