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Tampa Spartans take tough path to baseball national tourney

“Nobody wanted to be the first team (under coach Joe Urso) … that didn’t make it to postseason,” says senior outfielder Stephen Dezzi, who leads Tampa with 14 home runs.
“Nobody wanted to be the first team (under coach Joe Urso) … that didn’t make it to postseason,” says senior outfielder Stephen Dezzi, who leads Tampa with 14 home runs.
Published May 23, 2015

For the third consecutive year, its season will conclude in a pristine ballpark in North Carolina's sternum.

Nowadays, folks in Cary, N.C., leave the light on for the University of Tampa at the USA Baseball National Training Complex, annual site of the Division II Championship. The veteran Spartans know the nuances of this place like Hyde Park's hot spots.

The latest trip is the program's fourth since 2010. If they were normal travelers, the Spartans (39-13) would've ditched the GPS long ago. Thing is, they take a different route every year.

The latest one happened to be the rockiest.

"This group's had to overcome more adversity than any group I've had," veteran coach Joe Urso, 44, said.

Any UT fan who had grown complacent enough to believe a trip to Cary came with a season-ticket purchase found 2015 to be sobering before it became gratifying.

The season began swimmingly enough, with UT winning 13 of its first 14 before shocking a collection of Phillies big-leaguers and farmhands, 6-2, in a March 1 exhibition in Clearwater.

"We were screaming and hollering," said outfielder Stephen Dezzi, whose 14 home runs lead the team. "Obviously they didn't play a bunch of their top dogs, but those guys are major-leaguers, so that was exciting for us. … We were riding high at that point."

What followed was a spiral, at least by Urso standards.

UT lost six of its next 14, dropping two in a row for the first time since April 2013. The nadir was the first weekend in April, when the Spartans were swept in a three-game series (by Nova Southeastern) for the first time in four years.

During that stretch, Dezzi was slowed by a groin injury, and No. 1 pitcher David Heintz was shut down with arm soreness, joining projected 2015 ace Trey Oest of Durant High (offseason surgery) on the shelf. Even RBIs leader Nick Flair (57) missed a weekend when he took a ricocheted ball to the eye.

"Minus the national championship, that (Phillies win) is the peak, for someone to beat a pro team," said Urso, who has reached the postseason each of his 15 years, winning three national titles. "And then that next month we hit what I felt was the low point of my coaching career."

What followed might have been the zenith. With Tampa natives Urso and longtime pitching coach Sam Militello piecing together lineups, a resurgence ensued.

"I don't think there was anything anybody said. I think it was just something everybody kind of knew that we had to do," Dezzi said. "And nobody wanted to be the first team since (Urso) has been here that didn't make it to postseason."

Former Brandon High left-hander Chase Sparkman, the No. 3 pitcher at the season's outset, flourished as the fill-in ace (9-2, 4.11 ERA). Former reliever Michael Calkins won three starts down the stretch, including a complete-game three-hitter in an 8-1 South Region rout of Nova Southeastern.

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In arguably the most critical series of the regular season, against Sunshine State Conference foe Lynn, catcher Nick Tindall hit a 10th-inning, walkoff home run in the first game of a doubleheader sweep.

But the season's endearing highlight — to this point — might have occurred at Sunday's South Region championship in Livingston, Ala.

The third-seeded Spartans led Florida Tech 5-4 in the bottom of the 10th with a Panthers runner on third and one out when UT centerfielder Casey Scoggins snagged a line drive and threw out Tyler Doughty — the Panthers' stolen-base leader — at home plate to end the game.

Just like that, the Spartans were headed back to Cary, by the most surreal route yet.

"There was a time where we didn't think we would even make regionals, but we had something to prove, and I think the whole team knew that we did," Scoggins said. "We came together, and look where we're at."

Contact Joey Knight at


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