TAMPA - University of Tampa baseball coach Joe Urso knows how to put together a championship team.
So, as he and the Spartans embark on a possible third consecutive Division II national championship run this season, he will lean on the old reliables as the rest of his team develops.
"We have always tried to talk about pitching and defense winning titles, and that's what we're hoping we do," Urso said. "If we can keep these pitchers healthy, that is the key to this season. That's where it all starts."
The Spartans have a nice luxury - right-handed and left-handed starters with plenty of experience. Right-hander Scott Chapman (8-0, 2.97 ERA) and left-hander Kevin Ferguson (12-2, 2.92 ERA) should be workhorses as the Spartans work in their less experienced starters - left-hander Jon Wiederbauer, a 2007 redshirt, and right-hander Josh Bowman, a freshman from St. Petersburg Northeast.
"That's nice," Urso said "Any time you have left-handed pitching in college, or at any level, it's very nice."
Urso considers the rotation solid enough that he can move right-hander Anthony Perez, who went 7-0 last year and made nine starts, to the closer role vacated by Jonathan Holt (19 saves in 2007).
The pitching may be a necessity, because Urso isn't sure how the rest of his team will come together early this season.
The Spartans' biggest losses from the 2007 season are up the middle - catcher and middle infield. Urso has spent most of the fall and early spring trying to sort out those positions.
That's why the Spartans are likely to lean on three veteran position players for their early offense.
Jose Jimenez will move from third base to take over first after hitting .298 a year ago with 14 home runs and 48 RBIs. Paul Cruz - who as the designated hitter a year ago hit .357 - will go to right field. Nolan Brannon, who hit .368 last year and drove in 46 runs, will move from first base to DH.
The other top returning position player is Junior Mejia, who will return in his center-field role after hitting .405 and driving in 47 runs last year.
"More than half of our team is new, and as far as staring position players there's only one returning in the whole infield and two in the outfield," Urso said. "We're trying to focus on the new guys. The returning guys need to show them what it takes and what it's about."
Urso has mined the junior college ranks to fill the middle infield. JuCo transfer Leo Alvarez and medical redshirt Garrett Maines will share the catching duties. Three more JuCo transfers, Stephen Merino, Jesus Barroso and Casey Albanese, will start the season at second base, shortstop and third base, respectively. There is plenty of competition in left field, which Urso considers a key offensive position. Stephen Broschofsky, a transfer from LSU, is the front-runner.
It might seem daunting trying to put so many new pieces together. And the Spartans' early schedule - which includes a pair of road trips to Georgia - could make creating consistency difficult.
By March - when the Spartans will play most of their games at home - Urso hopes the team's chemistry will be percolating.
"We'll take it slow like we did last year," Urso said. "We'll approach each part of the season as its own part and hopefully get hot at the right time."