By Kyle LoJacono
University of Tampa (UT) baseball has established itself as a national power.
The No. 2 ranked Spartans (26-5, 9-3) have won 14 Sunshine State Conference (SSC) championships, 14 South Region titles and five Division II national crowns.
UT is known from coast to coast and time zone to time zone, but the Spartans haven’t had to look nearly as far and wide to stock their lineup.
“There’s just so much talent in this area, and we’ve tried to keep that going,” said 13-year UT coach Joe Urso. “That’s the way this program was built.”
The 2013 squad fits that mold, with 16 of its 36 players from high schools in Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas or Polk counties. Even the coaching staff is from the area with firsthand knowledge of how local talent has brought the program greatness.
“I played here for four years and coach (Sam) Militello player here three years, and we’re proud of continuing the tradition of UT baseball,” said Urso, a second baseman for the 1992 Spartans national championship squad. “I went to Plant, and coach Militello went to Jefferson.”
Wharton graduate Zach Gawrych and Bishop McLaughlin product David Heintz are examples of starters who came right to UT from high school.
Gawrych, a starting outfielder, had interest from Air Force and the University of South Florida before picking the Spartans for baseball and academics.
“I knew being from Tampa this was a great program that would help me succeed not only in my baseball career, but also in my life in general when I’m done with baseball,” said Gawrych (.298, 26 RBI, five home runs). “The academics here are so great. It helps you pursue your career either in baseball or in anything else.”
Heintz, a right-handed pitcher, missed last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery in his throwing elbow, but has worked his way into the starting rotation as a redshirt freshman. He was thrilled UT offered him a scholarship despite the injury.
“When a school like this asks you to come, it’s kind of an easy decision,” said Heintz (4-0, 1.99 ERA). “The program itself is pretty incredible. They run their practices and games like it’s a professional team.”
True freshman left-handed pitcher Brad Hencke (2-0, 2.45 ERA) had a similar reaction when the Spartans gave him a chance to play on scholarship after graduating from Land O’ Lakes.
“I was really excited when they offered me,” said Hencke, who has worked mainly out of the bullpen. “I think I jumped around and wanted to sign right there. … It had everything I wanted.”
Urso said the rest of the country has caught on to the area’s talent.
“It’s been harder to keep everyone we want, but we’ve done a good job of tracking players, even when they go to junior colleges, to bring them back to Tampa,” Urso said.
A couple of those they’ve brought back are juniors Mike Danner and Drew Doty, both Gaither graduates.
Danner, UT’s starting first baseman, attended Polk State College for two years before joining the Spartans.
“You come to a place where you know the area, and it helps you be more relaxed,” said Danner. “You don’t have to find your way around somewhere new.”
Danner said that comfort playing at home has helped him hit .362 with 24 RBI and 23 runs.
Doty, a starting outfielder, had two stops before finding his way to UT. He attended Saint Petersburg College for the first semester of his freshman year and then went to Santa Fe College before joining the Spartans.
“UT was a place I was looking at, but I wanted to get out of Hillsborough County when I first graduated from high school,” said Doty (.232, 17 runs, 16 RBI). “After two years I realized I was kind of homesick and wanted to come back here. … The main reason was I wanted to come back and play at home, and my parents can come watch me.”
Having so many recruits from one area has the side benefit of the players already knowing each other from playing with and against each other growing up.
“A lot of teams have problem with chemistry, but with us it came naturally,” Gawrych said. “It think with a lot of us being from around here and growing up playing together really helped with that. We had that bond right off the bat.”
Urso said personality and character are looked at closely when going after recruits.
“I think those things are as important, if not more important, when we look at if a kid is the right fit for us,” Urso said. “All these kids are talented. They wouldn’t be putting on a University of Tampa uniform if they weren’t talented. When we’re out recruiting we ask a lot of questions of their coaches, and we try to sit down with each of them at dinner to get a good read what they’re about and what their family life is about.”
Urso has led UT to a pair of national titles and sees the championship qualities in the current squad.
“The health of a No. 1 pitcher is so important,” Urso said. “Jon Keller is coming off an (elbow) injury and is progressing very well. Keeping him healthy is key, and we’re going to need to get better defensively in the infield to make that championship run. The personalities are in place. I could not be happier with what I’m seeing from these guys on and off the field. We had our highest GPA (3.15) of any semester since I’ve been here this fall. I think it’s all going to equate to great things if we stay healthy and get better defensively.”
Doty said they have confidence in their skipper’s methods: “Coach Urso is a good coach, and I know he’ll lead us to the championship.”
The Spartans next home game is April 9 at 4 p.m. against Embry-Riddle University.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker