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Tampa Spartans make quick mark on lacrosse scene

TAMPA — The mohawks atop the assorted pates are as profound as the midafternoon heat emanating from the synthetic turf. For the University of Tampa men's lacrosse team, solidarity comes with sticks, helmets and buzz clippers.

"I think it's honoring the Native Americans," coach Rory Whipple says of the Spartans' collection of close shaves. "We made it to postseason, so they wanted to do something, so they're honoring the creators of the game of lacrosse."

Roughly 400 years after a French missionary spotted Iroquois tribesmen playing the game in present-day New York, lacrosse is gaining steam locally. More than a dozen Hillsborough County high schools have FHSAA-recognized teams, and club programs are experiencing a gradual sprawl.

UT's program has accelerated things. The Spartans (16-2) have carved their niche in three seasons of existence. Sunday, they play in the Division II semifinals against Limestone in Gaffney, S.C.

In the quarterfinals, before an audience of roughly 1,000 that shoehorned itself into UT's Naimoli Family Athletic and Intramural Complex (where UT never has lost), the Spartans on Saturday topped Mercyhurst 11-9, avenging one of their two defeats.

"I never would've imagined our team being here in the position that we are, with a chance to go to Baltimore (for the final)," said Whipple's son Conor, a Georgetown transfer recently chosen Sunshine State Conference player of the year. "I can't really put it in words."

Conor's dad, the winningest coach in Division II history at 266-188, can.

Ask the 60-year-old New York native how a program spawned with two scholarships in 2012 could ascend to national prominence two springs later and he points to an influx of prominent transfers and conditioning — several of the former, tons of the latter.

"I'm not going to get outconditioned," said Whipple, an All-American wrestler at Cortland (N.Y.) State who also played on the school's Division II national champion lacrosse team in 1975. "The kids that come to Tampa, they know they're going to have to work hard, but they will be champions."

Hence the reason Mercyhurst's players, none of whom hail from south of the Mason-Dixon line, were heaving as most Spartans were catching a second wind. On a typical day, Whipple's players run a series of 20-yard sprints, perform a full-field three-man weave drill and close with two 400-yard sprints.

Nothing, however, induces more dread or nausea in the players than the "17s," in which the Spartans must complete 17 sprints of roughly 20 yards — from one line on the field to another — in 80 seconds.

"That's why we had a very good game against Mercyhurst," said Conor Whipple, whose 48 goals are second to Hofstra transfer Jake Rooney's 61 on the team. "They're from up north (Erie, Pa.), and we could run all day. The heat, especially on this turf, it's very hot, and we're used to it."

Conor Whipple and Rooney are among 20 Spartans who came from a four-year or community college. Even as Rory Whipple and his staff cultivate a talent base locally, he continues scouring his home state, a lacrosse hotbed, and luring transfers with the promise of better weather, a legitimate shot at a title and arguably the nicest facility in Division II.

It's a philosophy similar to that of Spartans baseball coach Joe Urso, whose No. 1-ranked team (47-2) includes 19 players from junior colleges or another four-year school.

"A lot of it is, the school is such a nice place, it's relatively easy to recruit for," said Rory Whipple, who has coached at four other schools, including Florida Southern.

"The administration's been very supportive; they've been increasing my budgets (to a handful of scholarships) and my coaching staff. Each year everything gets better. What happens when you win, things get better usually."

And the hairstyles evolve.

Tampa Spartans make quick mark on lacrosse scene 05/14/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 10:02pm]
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