TAMPA — If you are looking for a hometown team, a true farm-to-table Tampa experience, it would be hard to find a more homegrown one than the baseball team that resides off Kennedy Boulevard.
The University of Tampa players are all about home, as 60 percent of them played at the prep level within 60 miles of the Spartans program, which will take part in the eight-team NCAA Division II National Championship Tournament beginning today in Cary, N.C.
Tampa (51-2) opens against Southern Indiana (45-12) today at 1 p.m. The Spartans are seeking the program’s seventh national crown.
“When I first got the opportunity to take over here, I was just happy to have a chance to carry on the rich tradition,” said coach Joe Urso, in his 14th season at UT.
“We preach a family atmosphere here, where you know the families of the players. They’re (at games) to celebrate with us. It’s what I believe in. When you’re out recruiting, you look for that superstar, yes, but we have been so lucky to get the right guys who have helped us grow as a family.”
The Spartans have been a home for local talent for years. During its recent success, including winning the national championship a season ago, players from the surrounding area have had a huge impact.
Senior Tyler Ding, an Alonso High graduate, leads the Spartans with a .393 average. Sarasota Riverview product Stephen Dezzi leads the team in RBIs (45) and runs scored (50).
The Spartans’ probable starter today is sophomore David Heintz, a product of Bishop McLaughlin who is 10-0 this season.
Ding was named the South Region tournament MVP last week after the Spartans hosted and won the national tournament qualifier.
“The last two years, everyone has just clicked and meshed really well,” he said. “I had offers from a couple of (Division) I programs, but to have a chance to play close to home, in front of my friends and family, I couldn’t pass that up.”
Then there is the rest of the pitching staff.
Of the Spartans’ 53 games, 52 were started by pitchers from Hillsborough, Pinellas or Pasco County high schools. The lone exception: a start from Jimmy Hodgskin, a junior who transferred from Troy University, but grew up in Orlando.
Speaking of transfers, Urso has done a tremendous job finding a home for players such as Hodgskin after stints at D-I programs don’t pan out.
A prime example comes in two of the three Spartans starting pitchers — senior Preston Packrall (10-0, 1.94 ERA) and sophomore Trey Oest (8-0, 2.09). Packrall, who played at Clearwater Central Catholic, played one season at High Point (S.C.), and Oest, a Durant alum, pitched at Virginia his freshman year.
“I try to recruit all of these guys out of high school, and during that process I let them all know if they ever need anything to just call,” said Urso, who was named NCBWA Coach of the Year on Friday. “So, by keeping that communication open, those guys always feel like they have a place to call home.”
Oest, a sophomore, appreciates the second chance.
“I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to come back to my hometown and play for a team like the University of Tampa,” he said. “I knew they were a top program, and I loved to come to watch them or playing in high school tournaments here. I can’t think of a better place for me than right here.”
No major athletic program in the area can compete with what has become a perennial juggernaut in collegiate baseball. And for Urso, a former Spartans player who has won three national titles as a coach at UT, there is no shortage of emotions heading into this run.
“Each group is special in a different way,” Urso said. “But this group has been so close ... these guys have really earned a special place.”