Spartans know regular-season dominance means nothing in playoffs.
The Tampa baseball team won 19 of its 21 conference games, was ranked in the Division II Top 10 most of the season, put eight players on the all-conference team, including Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year Ronnie Merrill Jr. and opens today's NCAA South Region tournament as the No. 1 seed.
So why is that concern on the face of Spartans coach Terry Rupp?
Because he knows a regular season of conference dominance and a top seed mean nothing heading into post-season play. He also knows any of the three region opponents is capable of advancing through the double-elimination event to earn a trip to the Division II World Series, which begins May 27 in Montgomery, Ala. He is particularly wary of first-round opponent Saint Leo.
"They just might be the toughest team in our regional," said Rupp, who led the Spartans to a 44-10 regular-season record. "They play well and can play with anyone. If they do things right, they can win this thing."
Not to say UT can't.
UT, ranked No. 2 nationally by Baseball America, enters the post-season after splitting a regular-season finale last weekend with the top-ranked team in Division II, North Florida.
Merrill (.432 average, team highs in hits, doubles and triples) leads UT's all-conference parade. Outfielder Jim Kavourias (Division II best 23 home runs), catcher Mike Rabelo (started all but one game) and pitchers Charlie Manning (team-best 83 strikeouts) and Kris Sutton (10-0 in 2000) were named to the first team. Third baseman Eric Sims (.385 average and 49 stolen bases) and pitcher Brett Stewart (10-1) were listed on the second team. Danny August (6-2, 80 strikeouts) was honorable mention.
"We feel confident and this team is ready," said Rupp, named conference coach of the year after taking his team back to the region tournament after failing to make it last season. "Our focus all year has been getting ready for the regionals. We're playing well, pitching good and swinging the bats well."
UT has the added benefit of knowing Saint Leo very well. As conference foes, UT played the Lions (37-17, 13-8) six times, winning five. A 14-inning, 4-3 win Feb. 26 and a 6-5 win in 12 innings in April marked the Spartans' two longest games of the season.
Saint Leo, which lost in the region final last season, is led by first and second basemen Trevor Hall and Cayetano Landeros, All-Sunshine State Conference first-teamers. Hall hit .350 with a team-high 79 RBI; Landeros batted .375 with eight home runs and 76 hits.
"We've played them six times and we've got all the reports on them," Rupp said. "It helps our pitchers and catchers and can be an advantage. But you have to remember, they know us, too."
No. 2 seed Florida Southern (45-11) was second in the SSC this season but is making its seventh straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and 31st in 32 seasons.
The 1995 national champion, Florida Southern is fifth in the Division II national poll. Gardner-Webb, which moves to Division I next season, is making its first Division II region tournament appearance.
SOUTH REGION WHERE/WHEN: Today-Saturday; Baseball City Stadium, Davenport.
FORMAT: A four-team, double-elimination tournament.
TICKETS: A ticket for the entire tournament can be purchased for $15;single-game tickets are $5 for adults, $4 for students/senior citizens. All tickets must be purchased at the stadium's ticket office.
TODAY'S SCHEDULE: Game 1 _ No. 3 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 2 Florida Southern, 4:30 p.m.; Game 2 _ No. 4 Saint Leo vs. No. 1 Tampa, 8 p.m.
_ Compiled by Rod Gipson.