The University of Tampa softball team is coming off of a milestone season. The Spartans went 33-8 last season while finishing 19-5 in the Sunshine State Conference (SSC).
They were ranked as high as second in the nation in 2014, which set a program record.
Going into the 2015 season, the Spartans were ranked seventeenth in the National Fastpitch Coaches Association (NFCA) polls.
This is the fourth consecutive season that the Spartans came into a season being nationally ranked.
Also, they were predicted to finish second in the 2015 SSC preseason poll behind Rollins College. Rollins and UT were crowned the SSC co-champions last season after finishing with the same record in conference play.
Senior first baseman Meagan Burke did not seem to be phased by the SSC preseason ranking.
“I am happy with the ranking because we have been ranked first in the past and it puts a target on your back,” Burke said.
Senior pitcher and 2014 Division II All-American Julia Morrow feel the same way. “I am not upset about the ranking at all, I like being number two. The target is now on Rollins back,” Morrow said.
Burke is one of UT’s best returning hitters in the lineup as she lead the team with six home runs and 20 runs batted in (RBI) on top of a .347 batting average in 2014.
In addition, senior outfielder Lindsay Dring will complement Burke at the top of the lineup. Dring hit .340 last season and was only second to Burke in RBI with 14.
With that said, the Spartans also have unfinished business going into the 2015 campaign as they lost to Valdosta State University in the NCAA South Regional Tournament in 2013 and 2014. Morrow makes it clear that the spartans want to go deeper into the postseason.
“Our goal is to get out of regionals but we have to get there first. It was a bummer to lose at home last year to the team that we lost to the year before (Valdosta State),” Morrow said.
Morrow will be the centerpiece to the Spartans pitching staff as she went 15-5 with a NCAA leading 0.72 earned run average (ERA). She also recorded 16 complete games and six shutouts to cap off her special 2014 season.
To kick off their quest to get back to regionals, UT will play in the Eckerd Tournament, which is located in Clearwater on Friday.
They will start off the tournament against Southwest Baptist University and Lindenwood University as a part of the five game stretch. After that, the Spartans will open at home as they face off against Colorado Christian University.
Also, SSC play begins for the Spartans in late February against Florida Tech. Their most notable series will be against preseason SSC favorite Rollins in mid-March.
The Spartans will have a long journey to out of the NCAA South Region. Burke and Morrow discuss what they believe the team needs to do in order get out of regionals and into the race for a national title. “Everyone needs to work hard and do their own thing in order to contribute to the team. It is not only working together but doing your part,” Burke said.
Morrow puts more emphasis on scoring runs in pivotal situations. “We got a little relaxed last season and settled for one or two runs but if we score a couple more runs in each game then we should be where we want to be.”
Phil Novotny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org