All of the mounting anticipation and hype built throughout the regular season caught up to the Spartans as they entered the South Regional Tournament.
Finishing the regular season with a 42-8 overall record and as the SSC champions, the Spartans had the opportunity to host the regional tournament. Joe Urso, Head Coach of the Spartans, said that playing on their own field undoubtedly helped the team throughout the tournament.
“It’s just a big, big mental boost to be at home in your own bed, on a field that you’re familiar with [and] with your home crowd,” said Urso.
To begin the double-elimination tournament, Tampa played a familiar foe, Sunshine State Conference opponent Florida Tech. Led by a strong eight-inning outing by starting pitcher Josh Bowman, the Spartans coasted to a 7-1 victory.
Game two was against Valdosta State, another team the Spartans had faced in the regular season. In a three game series early in the season, Valdosta State dominated the Spartans, taking two out of three. However, it was a different story this time around as UT put up 17 runs en-route to their second victory in as many tries during the tournament.
Pitcher Sean Bierman started game two for the Spartans, giving up four runs on six hits through four innings. Bierman had closed out the regular season sidelined with elbow tendinitis.
When Bierman wasn’t needed out of the bullpen in the first game of the tournament, Coach Urso decided to start Bierman in the second game. Urso said that while he knew that Bierman could not throw as many innings as usual because of the injury, he still felt that Bierman gave the Spartans the best opportunity to win.
“There was a lot at stake against Valdosta State in game two. We felt like [Bierman] gave us the best chance to keep the score low through the first three or four innings,” said Urso.
The Spartans then faced arguably their toughest opponent of the tournament, the Southern Arkansas University (SAU) Muleriders. SAU entered the tournament as the No. 3 Division II team in the nation with an overall record of 43-8, one spot behind the No. 2 nationally ranked Spartans.
With a 20-5 victory over the Muleriders behind a six inning effort by starting pitcher John Wiedenbauer, the Spartans maintained their spot in the winners’ bracket, while SAU was forced to play their way out of the losers’ bracket. Along with the important win, the Spartans also got an important day off to rest.
“In an eight team tournament in five days, [it’s huge for] your pitching to get that day off,” Urso said.
The Muleriders indeed fought their way back into contention, which led to facing off against the Spartans at least once more. With the tournament being double-elimination style, the Spartans would have to be defeated by SAU twice to be held from being crowned the regional champs.
The Spartans fell to SAU in the first game by a score of 7-10. Josh Bowman started on the mound for the Spartans on just four days rest, going three innings and allowing four of the Muleriders’ runs. The loss meant that the next game against Southern Arkansas would be for the south regional title and a bid for a spot in the NCAA Championships.
Spartan senior pitcher A.J. Pinera went up against SAU ace and south regional pitcher of the year Hayden Simpson. Once the Muleriders broke out to an early 1-0 lead in the first inning, Coach Urso admitted that he was nervous.
“When they jumped out to a one [to] nothing lead on a homerun by the leadoff hitter, I was really worried about how we would respond,” Urso said.
The Spartans quickly rebounded, however, with a run of their own in the bottom half of the inning. After four innings, the Spartans knocked Simpson out of the game after throwing 84 pitches on just two days rest. Coach Urso said that there was a sense of accomplishment in the dugout once Simpson was taken out of the game.
“When they went to the bullpen to start the 5th inning, if you would’ve heard our dugout- they erupted,” said Urso. “It was like they knew that they accomplished a big goal in that game, and that was to get to [SAU’s] bullpen.
With Simpson no longer a factor in the game, the Spartans went to work against the SAU bullpen. In the 5th inning, with UT holding a 3-2 lead, junior catcher Mike Blanke hit a grand slam that gave the Spartans some breathing room. From that point on, there was no looking back as the Spartans won the game, and thus the tournament, by a lopsided score of 20-3.
A number of Spartans were named to the 2010 NCAA II Baseball South Regional All-Tournament Team: catcher Mike Blanke, who was also named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, first baseman Brad Roberts, second baseman Correy Figueroa, outfielders Jared Simon and Dylan Brown, and starting pitcher A.J. Pinera, who earned a victory in the final game against SAU.
Additionally, Coach Urso was named the ABCA/ Rawlings South Region Coach of the Year.
While there is reason for celebration, the Spartans still have more business to take care of. They will be traveling to Cary, N.C. for the Division II NCAA National Championships in an effort to bring home UT’s third national championship since 2006.
The Spartans will take on University of Central Missouri on Saturday, May 22 to begin their championship schedule. The tournament will last a week, concluding on May 29.