TAMPA — The sound of construction on the Bob Martinez Athletics Center echoes across the campus on this clear, sunny day.
Look past the center to the Art and Polly Pepin Stadium and you see something else being constructed: a lacrosse team.
After several years of being a club sport, the University of Tampa now has a collegiate lacrosse team. The Spartans compete in the Deep South Conference, a Division II lacrosse-only league composed of nine teams: UT, Catawba, Florida Southern, Florida Tech, Lenoir-Rhyne, Mars Hill, Rollins, St. Leo and Wingate.
The Spartans (4-2, 3-0 in Deep South play) host Pennsylvania's Misericordia University at 7 p.m. today in the first of seven consecutive home games this month. Admission is $5; children 10 and younger are free.
The Spartans are in good hands with head coach Rory Whipple, who launched his fourth startup college lacrosse program with UT.
"I've been involved with lacrosse since I was 5," Whipple said with a smile. "After college, I got right into college coaching."
Whipple attended Cortland State (New York) and played on the Cortland State 1975 NCAA Division II championship lacrosse team. He is currently the all-time winningest coach in NCAA Division II lacrosse.
Whipple entered the Spartans' inaugural game against Florida Southern on Feb. 10 unsure of what kind of team he would guide. But the game proved memorable as UT pulled out a 7-4 win against the Mocs, a program he started and coached prior to being named UT's head coach.
"After 30 years of college coaching, that's probably in my top five quality wins," Whipple said. "I was pretty elated. We beat a competitive team in its fourth year. That was a big win for our program."
He also said that Florida Southern was their most difficult opponent to date.
"They were second in the conference last year. There was a lot of emotion going into that game."
Whipple isn't tempering his goals just because this is the school's inaugural year of play.
"We're trying to challenge for a Deep South Conference Championship and right now we're undefeated (in conference play)," Whipple said. "We're going to take each game one by one and try to win the conference championship. It would be pretty exciting and a great accomplishment for our players and our program."
Greg Khanzadian is one of the players trying to bring that conference championship to Tampa. Khanzadian is a senior transfer from Roanoke College (Virginia), where he played for two years. He's one of the UT captains and a faceoff specialist.
"We knew we were a young team and it would be an uphill challenge to develop a team attitude and team chemistry," Khanzadian said. "All things considered, it's still early in the season and I think we've come a good bit. We have a long ways to go, but I am pleased with the way things are going and the way things are being handled thus far."
Khanzadian has been involved with lacrosse and playing since he was in the eighth grade, when he got tired of baseball. I picked up a lacrosse stick and found out it was pretty similar to football — "a lot of fast-paced excitement."
Even with more than seven years of experience, nothing compared with playing in Tampa's inaugural game. UT president Ronald Vaughn and Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn were among the crowd of 2,100.
"It was something else," Khanzadian said. "I've never been involved with a game quite like that. Between the amount of people that showed up, the marching band, all the fans — it made it very exciting and like nothing I had been a part of before. It was amazing."
Khanzadian shares the same optimism that his coach shares. He thinks a Deep South Conference title is well within reach and says it would be very special to him.
"I'm not sure if there are many teams that can say they've ever accomplished something like that," Khanzadian said. "We definitely have the tools and skill and knowledge to do it. We have experience and a lot of older guys that have been in those types of games before. It's well within our grasp. If it's something we're able to accomplish, it's definitely something I will cherish.
"What we do after that is certainly up to us. We definitely have some work to do, but I'm looking positively at the postseason."
Paul Driscoll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.