The University of Tampa swim team has had nine women and six men qualify for this year's NCAA Division II National Championship meet in Orlando March 9-12, but coach Ed Brennan is hoping he can add a few more names to that list over the next two months.
Halfway into the season, Brennan has the team lifting weights and training twice a day in preparation for the final push. Thursday, the Spartans get an opportunity to test their strength at home in an 11-team field in the UT Relay Invitational.
"This is our last bit of training before we get into the championship season with the Sunshine State Conference meet in February and the nationals in March," Brennan said. "This meet is more of a fun opportunity for the kids to get them excited about competing, especially at this point of the season when they are tired and broken down."
The relays will feature morning and afternoon sessions and have Division I and II teams. Tampa's men and women are ranked ninth in Division II by CollegeSwimming.com. The women compete against five-time reigning national champions, Truman (Mo.) State.
The Spartans finished last year at No. 8 and are expected to get a boost from newcomer Chelsea Hastings, who recently transferred from California-Berkeley. The men are led by Ben Oshri, ranked in the top 10 in the 200 backstroke, and Dan Klee, who reached the finals of the 50 freestyle last season as a sophomore.
"Locally, these relays allow high school swimmers to come over and take a look at what the next level is all about," Brennan said. "It keeps our swimmers excited about competition and the spectators can really get a feel for it."
BRACING FOR CONFERENCE: The UT men's and women's basketball teams get an test right after the holiday break Wednesday night at home against SSC power Rollins.
The Spartan men seek their first conference win after being edged 95-91 in double overtime by Saint Leo Dec. 8 in their SSC home opener. Winning won't be easy against the two-time defending champion Tars. Rollins, which defeated UT twice by double digits last season, returns three starters from a team which went 27-6 and reached the NCAA Elite Eight.
The Spartans seek their second five-game winning streak of the young season. Their three losses have come by a combined nine points.
Tampa continues to gain confidence in freshman Chris Evans, who has 12.7 points and 12.7 rebounds in his past three games. In Tuesday's win over St. Ambrose, Evans hauled down 21 rebounds, the most by a Spartan since 1983 when the university's basketball program was brought back.
Evans, named SSC player of the week last week, has stepped along with Josh Shave, who scored a career-high 18 on Dec. 20 in Tampa's win over Davenport. The junior guard has averaged 16 points over the past three games.
Tampa's women also face the defending SSC champs on Wednesday. Coach Tom Jesseehas equaled the 10-2 start he hadin his first season, 2002-03, when the Spartans tied for the conference title and reached the NCAA Tournament.
Forward Jamie Skinner is a big reason the Spartans are 8-0 at home; she has back-to-back 20-plus point performances. Skinner also was named SSC player of the week.
_ DAVID NORRIE, Times correspondent