Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Sports

Homegrown talent carries Tampa Spartans to title game

If its baseball team wins another national title tonight, the University of Tampa probably can finance a lavish victory celebration from the surplus in coach Joe Urso's recruiting budget.

For some of his most significant scouting trips in recent years, Urso didn't even have to check bridge traffic, much less baggage. Look at his batting order: The junior from Wharton protects the senior from Pasco.

Look at his infield: When the catcher from Alonso throws down to second, another Raven typically is there for the tag. Check out his pitching staff: The lefty from Nature Coast can bring heat. The righty from Clearwater Central Catholic brings the toaster.

"Everybody knows everybody," said third baseman Jake Schrader (Pasco). "I mean, even before we got to college, everybody knew everyone."

The result: This group might — just might — possess the best team chemistry of Urso's 13 seasons.

"This is the most fun I've ever had on a team in my life," Schrader added.

Tampa, one victory from the program's sixth national title, will have at least seven players from bay area high schools in its lineup for tonight's NCAA Division II title game against Minnesota State in Cary, N.C.

That doesn't include the pitching staff, which includes five locals.

"I never thought I would be around another team like that 2006 (national title) team we had as far as the personality," said Urso, himself a local product (Plant, Class of '88).

"It was obvious early that this team was going to be special as far as the way they got along and the camaraderie."

To a degree, Urso planned it this way. Simple logic indicates it's easier to do your homework on a local kid and build a relationship with his family. Forging a similar bond with an out-of-area player isn't always a practical notion.

"You're just judging them on their ability," he said.

Which is to say, Urso mostly knew what he was getting with this group, in terms of its tools and appliances.

The Spartans will have a toaster in their dugout tonight, with an extension cord if necessary. If the club appears in need of a rally or on the verge of an offensive breakthrough, a slice of bread will be inserted.

It will toast as chants of "Hot Bread" emanate from the dugout and reverberate through the Spartans supporters in the bleachers. Upon the rally's end, a player will eat the bread. Urso even ordered T-shirts with #hotbread emblazoned on the back.

"It has taken off like nothing else I've seen," Urso said.

According to the coach, the quirky custom was started by pitcher Preston Packrall.

Naturally, he's a local guy (Clearwater Central Catholic).

"Everyone's a little bit more comfortable being local," said catcher Adam Pendleton (Alonso). "It's just a good baseball environment to be in."

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