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UT baseball's goal is a return to World Series

When the University of Tampa's 1999 baseball season ended, coach Terry Rupp experienced a strange phenomenon. For the first time in his four years as coach of the Spartans, there was no post-season, no College World Series.

In fact, the 1999 Spartans struggled to a 33-22 record and a fourth-place finish in the Sunshine State Conference.

And this came on the heels of a 1998 season that saw UT advance to its third straight CWS and win the national championship.

"It was a disappointing season," Rupp said of last year. "But we feel confident about this year."

And heading into year No. 5, Rupp may have some ingredients in place to restore some of the Spartans' luster, if opening day was indication. In Sunday's 12-10 win against Barry, UT displayed power and clutch hitting.

Matt Smith and Jim Kavourias hit back-to-back home runs, shortstop Ronnie Merrill homered and had four RBI, and Brad Safchik and Eric Sims combined for five hits.

Those numbers give the Spartans confidence coming into Saturday's game against Valdosta State.

The Spartans, ranked ninth in Collegiate Baseball, returning four All-Sunshine State Conference performers.

First baseman Miguel Menedez (.328, 31 RBI), outfielder Mike King (10 HR, 44 RBI) and catcher Mike Rabelo (.322, 35 RBI) are all back to form what should be a potent offensive lineup.

But question marks could arise with a pitching staff that, while talented, lacks experience. The top returning starter is right-hander Brett Stewart, who was second-team All-SSC last year.

After going 6-3 with 79 strikeouts and a 3.41 ERA in 87 innings last season, Stewart comes in as the No. 1 starter for Rupp.

Other pitchers who will figure in the rotation are David Muley, Charlie Manning and Kris Sutton, who won Sunday with four shutout innings and three strikeouts in a relief appearance.

Manning comes to UT after being All-State at Polk Community College. He was a 16th-round draft pick by the Boston Red Sox last summer. A junior left-hander, Manning will play some first base and pitch.

One of the more intriguing new members of Rupp's squad will be Dwight Edge, a member of Baseball America's preseason All-American team.

If Edge's name rings familiar it's because as a 6-foot-6, 240-pounder, he played tight end at the University of Florida the past two seasons. Transferring to UT to concentrate on baseball, a sport he hasn't played since 1996 when he was at Apopka High, Edge will see action in centerfield.