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Urso, UT baseball flourish under the radar

TAMPA

April has segued into May, and all the harbingers of summer have revealed themselves.

Mildness has transition to humidity, ballrooms and banquet halls are congested with promgoers, tan lines are more profound, and the University of Tampa baseball team is poised for another national title run.

As sure things go, Spartans excellence is reaching the pantheon of death, taxes and Dale Mabry Highway gridlock. UT, which had concerns about its starting pitching as 2014 dawned, is having the best regular season (47-2) in program history.

On the immediate horizon: A school record for overall wins in a year (the 2006 club had 54) and a seventh national title. The team already set the single-season win-percentage mark, and now bids for a berth to the NCAA Division II World Series this weekend as host of the South Regional this weekend.

"All the great teams I've had have had a downturn and you come back into gear to get them ready for the postseason," said coach Joe Urso, a UT alumnus wrapping up his 14th season.

"This one has been a little bit more of a challenge for me because they haven't had that downturn. They believe. They believe every night, no matter what the score is, that they're gonna come back and win."

This is how juggernauts are carved at UT: with gobs of resilience and only a modicum of noise. In a big-league market where the Rays, Bucs, Lightning, Rowdies, Storm and Division I USF jostle for fans' disposable income, the Division II Spartans have grown accustomed to flourishing beneath the radar. It's understandable.

For Urso, 43, it's a recurring life theme.

• • •

An undersized, over-achieving Plant High second baseman, who struggled to get a second glance from major colleges, Urso still is being overlooked by those same big-time programs in his managerial life.

The South Tampa native's resume shines with more than 600 career wins and three national titles. Since 2006, 41 of his players have been selected in the Major League Baseball first-year player draft. Even if most locals don't realize this, peers and athletic directors and search-firm honchos perpetually on the lookout for a rising star likely do.

"He'd have no problem winning at the D-I level," said former Spartans first baseman Jake Schrader, MVP of last season's NCAA Division II Championship Series.

So why no suitors?

"That's the big question. I don't know the answer," said former UT All-American and big-league pitcher Sam Militello, who has served as the Spartans' top assistant during the entire Urso era.

"I don't know what Division I colleges look for. I don't know if it's them thinking they have to take a chance on a Division II guy, but baseball is baseball and this guy knows baseball."

• • •

The sixth of seven kids, Urso and his siblings essentially were reared in South Tampa ballparks. His dad, Rico, an electrician, once served as president of the Palma Ceia Little League. An older brother, also named Rico, later coached Joe and youngest sibling Salvy at the Tampa Bay Little League.

When Plant won the Class 3A state title in 1988, Joe started at second base, Salvy at first. Salvy recalls Joe, who hit .371 as a senior and made the Times' All-Hillsborough County first team, as a "scrappy" player with an oversized heart shoehorned into his 5-foot-5 body.

"He was a manager on the field," said Militello, who faced the Urso boys frequently as the ace at Jefferson High.

"He was that undersized, gritty player that just fought and fought and fought. He was a pest at the plate because you couldn't get him out; he'd continue to fight. Defensively, he was outstanding, made every play, but he was that game manager on the field."

• • •

Snubbed by Division I schools, Urso accepted a scholarship from UT coach (and current USF skipper) Lelo Prado, evolving into a four-year starter and two-time second-team All-American. In 15 games against Division I teams as a senior, he hit .377 and was successful on all 11 of his stolen-base tries.

UT won the D-II national title that year, in 1992.

"Obviously my size has always been the knock against me," said Urso, MVP of the national championship team.

"When I was at Plant High School, I remember (Coach Jeff) Vardo had a lot of people come look at me. Clemson was there one day and I hit a grand slam over at the minor-league complex in Clearwater and they were still like, ' He's too short.' So that's always been something that, for me, I had to work harder to get through those things."

• • •

Drafted in the 49th round by the California Angels in '92, Urso spent parts of six seasons in the minors, hitting .282 in what evolved into on-the-job training for his current role. Observing veteran farm-team managers such as Tom Kotchman and Mitch Seoane, Urso absorbed every particle of their profession, from strategy to psychology.

It led to his own three-year stint as coach and manager in the Angels system.

"(Seoane) was that laid-back coach, and if you ask my guys . . . when you come to my practices, it's very low-key, laid-back, here's our plan for the day, we're gonna get our work in," Urso said.

"I don't have to yell a whole lot. It's like, 'It's gonna be a nice plan for you guys. You'd better give me 100 percent because if not, then I do have to start putting my foot down.' "

• • •

Over time, the Urso style became a sum of all his past experiences.

Influenced heavily by Kotchman, whom he considers the best in-game manager he knows, Urso's knowledge of rules and statistics approaches savant status.

"Anything you ever need to know about baseball, just ask him," said Schrader, now in the Atlanta Braves farm system.

While zoned in on game days, his practices are mostly devoid of bluster. His only hard-and-fast rules: Go to class, and arrive at practice ready to work. He's not as volcanic as Vardo or Prado, and can recall being thrown out of only five games in his 14 seasons at UT, yet no Spartan wants to get complacent on Urso.

Violators are subject to the "90-second drill," where players start from behind home plate and must run the perimeter of the field — down the first-base line, out to the warning track, across the outfield, up the third-base line and back to home — in a minute and a half.

It's really the only physical punishment Urso enforces, and even that's a rarity. He proudly notes his collective team GPA of the last two seasons has been the highest of his UT tenure.

"I'd have to say he's laid-back, but you don't want to (tick) him off," said Salvy Urso, who recalls doing 52 laps during a Plant practice following a lackluster win. "Vardo was always hard the whole time. Joe's more relaxed than him but when he's (upset), the kids better watch out."

• • •

By all observations, Urso could continue this approach to 600 more wins at his urban alma mater. To hear him, it seems he would be fine with that.

A married dad of two boys, he's doing the job for which he was born, only a few miles from the two-story house on San Miguel Street where he grew up. The commute from his Wesley Chapel home is minimal.

But others remain perplexed that bigger stages haven't beckoned. While more prominent schools have made overtures in the past, Urso suggests that ascending to a major D-I program would require him to first prove himself all over again at a mid-level one.

"I'm not willing to do that," he said. "I don't feel like I need to leave one of the best programs in the country to go to a mid-level anything."

So Rico and Hortense Urso's second-youngest boy keeps plugging away, keeps the collective mind-set loose at practice and locked-in at games. All the while, the Spartans keep entering national title conversations. You can set your summers by it.

"My wife and kids live and breathe UT baseball," Urso said. "It's all over their homework assignments, it's everywhere. When people ask why I haven't left, this is big-time and I want to keep this thing rolling as long as we can."

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@tampabay.com.

Urso, UT baseball flourish under the radar 05/16/14 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2014 11:20am]
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