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Next step: national championship

When pressed about his team's chances before each season, University of Tampa baseball coach Joe Urso expresses caution, but also confident optimism.

After all, when you collect conference and region championships and almost routinely compete for national championships as UT does, it can be hard to be humble. So what does Urso think about his team's chances this season?

"My first season here (2001) we won 49 games," Urso said. "And that was a good team, one of the best that's been here. This year's team can be right along there with them."

With five All-Sunshine State Conference team players back, only two starters lost to graduation and an outstanding pitching staff anchored by last season's SSC athlete of the year, Eric Beattie, Urso understands this Spartans team could win a national title.

And that's what it would take for UT to top last season. The Spartans were 45-18 in 2003 and finished second at the Division II World Series in Montgomery, Ala.

"Last year was great but we came up one game short," said Urso, who is 130-48 in three seasons at UT with two Division II World Series appearances. "We definitely have high expectations around here and they are even higher since we haven't won a national championship since 1998."

At the heart of that quest is a pitching staff featuring Beattie, Joey Watts and Casey McKenzie. Beattie, a 6-foot-3 junior right-hander, was 15-3 with a 2.55 ERA a season ago and 105 strikeouts and was named an All-American. Seniors Watts and McKenzie combined for 15 victories.

Right-handed McKenzie had an SSC-best 113 strikeouts in 93 innings and Watts, a lefty, had 77 strikeouts in 112 innings.

The Spartans will add former Leto standout Sergio Perez as their fourth starter and Josh Weis and Craig Benner will continue their roles as setup men for returning closer Justin Boza.

"It's an experienced, deep staff," Urso said. "These guys are proven winners and they will pitch in a lot of big games for us."

Backing them is a lineup full of speed and power.

Speedy centerfielder Roberto Caliente, a transfer from Clemson, will lead off. The power will come from the Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters: Tim Duff, Matt Armstrong and Billy Wimberly. A senior catcher, Duff had 47 hits last season. Armstrong, a senior DH, led the team with 14 home runs and 53 RBI. Junior third baseman Wimberly hit nine homers with 46 RBI. All three hit better than .300.

But as strong as his squad is on paper, Urso expects to be challenged the entire season, which begins Saturday at home against Eckerd in a doubleheader. Selected by Collegiate Baseball as the preseason co-No. 1 in Division II with Central Missouri State (which topped the Spartans in the national championship game last season), UT must first contend with the SSC to earn a shot at a fourth national crown.

"The whole conference is strong," Urso said. "Florida Southern has one of the best teams in some time, Rollins and Lynn are strong. It's going to be a lot tougher for us."

But though their goal, a return to Montgomery, will be tough, Urso and the Spartans are looking forward to another destination as well: Hawaii. The Spartans will spend a week in Honolulu in March playing six games against Division II foe Hawaii-Pacific.

"We wanted to do something special for the boys," Urso said. "So we're going out to Hawaii for spring break. It's great for team chemistry and building even more camaraderie.

"And those kind of things show up later on in the season when your team's playing in big games."