Tampa Finds Its Niche With Bounce-Back Players

TAMPA—Joe Urso proudly admits that his University of Tampa baseball roster is speckled with players he recruited but couldn't land out of high school. He knows the conversation well. Best of luck, he'll say, and hang onto my phone number.

As the 2013 Spartans try to build on a tradition of Division II success, Urso will do so with a handful of bounce-back kids—players who signed with major Division I programs, only to transfer back close to home to play for the Spartans.

"Most of them, unfortunately, I end up hearing, 'No, I'm going to LSU, Florida, Auburn,' these schools," Urso said. "I just say, 'Good luck. If there's anything I can ever do for you, please call.' That's what's happened."

Third baseman Sean O'Brien, from across the bay in Clearwater, is a transfer from Florida State; catcher Shane Rowland, who played at Tampa Catholic, started his college career at Miami, where his father played. The Spartans are loaded with players from major programs like Tulane, Auburn, Nebraska and Boston College.

"We get a lot of bounce-back kids," Urso says, pointing to NCAA rules that force Division I players to sit out for a year if they transfer to another D-I school. "A lot of these kids are committing too young, committing as sophomores (in high school). I'm not sure the D-Is are 100 percent on how that kid is going to develop over those two years."

With a steady influx of junior-college talent and local prep standouts in addition to the transfers, Urso has cobbled together winners. Rowland, looking out at an outfield view of downtown Tampa after a victory on a warm Saturday afternoon, said his second instinct was the correct one.

"I feel really at home here," said Rowland, who started 41 games at Miami as a true freshman before coming to Tampa last year. "D-I just didn't work out for me quite like I thought it would. I found a home at D-II and I love it here. It's a great place to play, and a great group of guys."

UT has had 18 players drafted in the last three years, the highest pick being outfielder Jared Simon in the sixth round in 2010. Last year's highest draft pick, lefthander Sean Bierman, started his career at Vanderbilt. The talent level alone isn't enough to translate to success, so Urso is challenged each year to bring together players from different starting points to one shared goal as Spartans.

"The chemistry becomes the toughest part, when you're trying to get kids to come in here for one or two years," Urso said. "It is a challenge, but the older guys, they know what it takes to play here. They get the new guys in line quickly. That's why we've had so much success in Tampa. There's been an expectation here, back to when Tino Martinez was here, and it's just carried on."

UT has won five national championships, most recently in 2006 and 2007, but the last two seasons have seen the Spartans lose in regionals, something they hope to improve on in 2013.

"It's always been known as a great baseball program—it's pretty much a D-I here," O'Brien said. "It was a really easy choice for me. I came from a really great organization at Florida State. We've got a great field here; they take good care of it. We're spoiled here."

Urso has found that the second-chance players are more likely to focus and make the most of their chance at UT, knowing there probably isn't another door opening elsewhere if it doesn't work out. O'Brien hit .355 as a freshman at FSU, but went 0-for-12 as a sophomore; he had seven hits in his first six games for the Spartans.

"Right away, we all kind of clicked," O'Brien said. "This is another chance, another opportunity to prove yourself. I felt like I got that taken away from me at Florida State. This is a chance to show what I can do."

Urso would have gotten even more contributions from transfers had the Spartans not been hit by a rash of injuries to new arrivals. Two much-heralded pitchers were both injured in the Cape Cod League—former Troy lefty Jimmy Hodgskin had to have Tommy John surgery and is out for the year, and Jon Keller, a 6-foot-5 righthander from Nebraska, should be able to pitch by the end of February and could be a key starter. Zach Alvord, an infielder from Auburn, tore the UCL in his elbow in a collision covering first base two days before the season and could also miss the entire year.

On Feb. 9, Tampa got a 5-1 victory against Georgia College, helped by three double plays. Urso said improved defense is a must if the Spartans are to make any noise in the postseason this summer.

"I think offensively, we're as good as we need to be to go deep," Urso said. "Right now, my concerns are defensively. We're making a couple errors a game. With an aluminum bat, you can't expect pitchers to get four or five outs in an inning. You're in close games, and if you don't play good defense, you're going to lose those games."