DOWNTOWN — The multi-talented Paul Cruz could have played at bigger schools, but when he graduated from Hillsborough Community College two years ago, there was only one choice for him: the University of Tampa.
"I like everything about the tradition here," Cruz said. "I followed the program since I was little and, since I wanted to stay home with my family, I found this was the best situation for me."
Cruz, a senior, watched games at Sam Bailey Field growing up. After playing there during the Saladino Tournament in high school, he had no doubt he would play for the championship UT team, if recruited.
Coach Joe Urso was only too glad to oblige him with an offer.
"He has all the tools that you look for in a pure leadoff hitter," Urso said. "He's able to hit to all fields, he's a great bunter and he's able to steal bases. He also shows more power than most leadoff hitters.
"Defensively, he covers a lot of ground (in the outfield) with his speed, and he has one of the better arms that we've had here."
A speedy left-handed hitter, Cruz flirted with the prestigious .400 batting mark this year and was still in the .370s with the season nearing its conclusion. He was often the Spartans' offensive catalyst en route to a 36-8-1 record, smashing 14 doubles and four triples.
His quiet, laid back nature off the field belies an intensity that Urso says should help him get selected in the June amateur draft.
"He's one of the best athletes in our (Sunshine State) conference," Urso said, adding that Cruz is likely to play pro ball when his college career ends.
A thickly corded 5-foot-10, 190-pound Cruz batted .357 last year for the Division II national champions. He said he respects how Urso treats his charges like young men, which results in a close-knit team that polices each other.
"The coaches respect us as individuals," said Cruz, who played at Brandon High and for Gary Calhoun at HCC. "They know we can play, but they always look for ways to make us better.
"I like the intensity here, how everyone shows their pride for the school and the game. This is the way I like to play."
The way they like to play at UT is forged from a rich tradition that has produced five national championships since 1992. But this year's team can make its own mark in Spartan annals by winning a third consecutive title, which no Division II team has achieved.
"I've just told the guys to find our own identity as the 2008 team," said Urso, a Plant High standout who played on the 1992 UT championship team. "But, yeah, you'd love to be part of history and what it would mean for the University of Tampa and our baseball program.
"It was special going back to back. We're the only school (in Division II) that's gone back to back twice," he said, referring to national titles in 1992, 1993, 2006 and 2007. "But the guys have handled the pressure. They know the bulls-eye is always on their back and they've handled it well."
Urso said this year's team isn't the offensive juggernaut of past units. But the team pitches well and plays strong defense.
There's one other key ingredient opposing teams can't see when peering into the Spartans dugout.
"They know how to bunt over runners, they know how to score runners from third, they know how to do the little things that good teams do," Urso said. "And we pitch and play defense, so we're in every game, and our bullpen is very strong.
"Our closer, Anthony Perez, is leading the nation (in Division II) in saves, and we know how to win games in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings when other teams might make mistakes. That happened in the World Series last year in the championship game. The team we were playing (Columbus State) let a ball drop between them in the outfield and that led to a key run that turned the game in our favor."
Urso said past success keeps the team grinding forward during a long season.
"Tradition means a lot, because during the bad times they step it up because they don't want to be part of anything negative with UT baseball because we've had so many great teams here," he said. "And during the good times they expect to win.
"There's a tremendous sense of pride when you wear the Tampa jersey and they know the expectations that go with that."
The Spartans conclude the regular season at home today and Saturday against Sunshine State Conference foe Barry University. The drive for the third consecutive national crown begins in the South Region playoffs May 15 to 18 at a site to be determined.