By Dakota Busch
The University of Tampa men’s baseball team is off to a successful start as they work towards their ninth National Championship this season.
The baseball team is one of the most decorated at UT, winning eight NCAA Championships and 20 Sunshine State Conference (SSC) Championships. Before their season got cut short due to the outbreak of COVID-19, they were on their way to defending their 2019 national title.
“The season being canceled hit the team hard. After winning a national championship, we wanted the opportunity to show that we were still dominant and wanted to defend the title,” said UT third baseman Sam Freitas.
Getting another chance to defend that NCAA title will look a little differently this year than others, as many new guidelines and rules have been implemented due to COVID-19. Instead of playing a regular schedule with 50 games, the season has been shortened to just 30. These games include only SSC opponents. Like other SSC teams, no overnight travel or stay is permitted.
Joe Urso is in his 21st season of being the head coach at UT and said travel limitations are the most significant disadvantage regarding COVID-19 restrictions.
“Teams are not allowed to stay in hotels which have forced us to do some Thursday, Saturday games,” said Joe Urso. “This puts a day off in between your three games set, which we don’t really like because it can give a team an advantage to utilize their bullpen differently to beat us.”
One of Coach Urso’s biggest mottoes over his years as head coach has been centered around the idea of creating a team/family atmosphere. Two-time SSC player of the week, first baseman John Malcolm, says something COVID-19 has made more challenging this year.
“I feel as if a major part in a successful team is how close the guys are to each other, and COVID has made it somewhat difficult to do different team bonding activities that normally take place to create that connection between the guys,” said Malcolm.
Another significant change the baseball team faces is the prevention of fans from attending any games. The second baseman, Drew Ehrhard, is a Tampa native who attended games himself when he was younger.
“One of the reasons I came to UT is because I was once a fan and loved coming to the games,” said Ehrhard, “not being able to look up in the stands and see my loved ones has been a big adjustment for me.”
Although the lack of fans has been disappointing for players and their families, it has helped strengthen team chemistry.
“It has made us closer in a way, seeing that we essentially have to support each other and cheer for each other an extra amount to make up for the loss of crowd noise,” said Malcolm.
The Spartans will face off against the Florida Tech Panthers this weekend in their biggest conference game so far. UT currently has a 4-1 record, while the Panthers have a 5-1 record. The team will look to get two out of three games to secure the conference’s number one position early on.
“I’m expecting low-scoring games; we’ll have two teams that have outstanding pitching and excellent defense,” said Joe Urso. “It’ll be the team that makes the least amount of mistakes on defense and does well in situational hitting that will come out on top.”
Winning against Florida Tech may be the goal for this week, but the team’s ultimate goal remains winning the 2021 National Championship. The baseball team is defending NCAA Champions, but they are also ranked number one in SSC polls and some national polls. Shortstop, JD Urso, says their mindset in every practice and game is defending their title.
“We have a coaching staff that does a phenomenal job to get us prepared for each series and puts in a position to win,” said JD Urso. “I see this team having much success this season, and I believe we have what it takes to make a push for our ninth championship.”
Coach Urso said even though they have a lot of new players, the returners have explained the expectations he has for his team, and he has nothing but winning expectations.
“I think this is a team that’s loaded with offensive depth; we accept the challenge of trying to write that lineup every day,” said Joe Urso. “Hopefully, these guys just keep working hard and knowing what’s at stake, and we’ll be off to making a run for a title.”