BY GABE COHN
While students are getting acclimated with their classes, UT’s athletes are shaking off the rust from winter break.
This spring, the men’s lacrosse team is gearing up for another run to the Sunshine State Conference Championship. Head coach Rory Whipple’s squad has been very successful over the last two seasons, winning the SSC championship and conference tournament both years, but have had difficulty making headway in national postseason play.
In 2014, the Spartans (16-3) earned the program’s first-ever bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament. They defeated the Mercyhurst Lakers in the national quarterfinals by a score of 11-9, becoming the first-ever collegiate lacrosse team from the state of Florida to host and also win an NCAA postseason game. Sadly the early tournament momentum waned and the Spartans fell in the Division semifinal to eventual national champion and perennial rival Limestone in a 14-10 battle.
In 2015, the Spartans climbed their way back to the tournament despite key injuries to players like Marty Heyn, but lost in the quarterfinals to the Lake Erie Storm in a 15-7 blowout.
“Last year we had a strong team [which led] to a [SSC] conference championship and a trip to the NCAA tournament,” Whipple said. “But, I thought we were a little young last year especially on defense.”
Even though the Spartans didn’t accomplish their main goal of a national championship, the team believes that last year can be portrayed as a success. Sophomore defensemen Nick Balzano explained how his team’s journey last season brought the team closer together.
“Our accomplishments last year definitely sparked an even better camaraderie between us all,” Balzano said. “One of our strengths last year was having a strong bond as a team and that bond will push us to have an even better season this year.”
The Spartans come into the new year healthier and more experienced which, in turn, will give them a better chance at a deep run in the Division II tournament. Whipple is excited about the potential of this year’s team because of past experience and the strong leadership this team owns.
“This year’s team has more seniors and excellent captains–Whipple, Piper, Heyn, Bilak–which is going to make us stronger,” he said. “We feel that because our team is going to be more senior-laden it will be stronger than last year’s team.”
After explaining his goals and aspirations for the upcoming season, Whipple praised the team’s overall character and identity.
“We have a blue collar team here that brings in their lunch boxes and hard hats and works hard everyday.” Whipple said. “We work hard in the weight room, on the practice field, and are well conditioned. I also have more depth than I have had in the last four years. So, hopefully our depth and conditioning will help us run teams right off the field.”
This year all the ingredients are in place, with a roster possessing ample talent and an experienced head coach at the helm who brings knowledge and culture to his team.
“Coach Whipple wants every one of his players to reach their highest potential,” Senior attacker Chris Vetter said. “He motivates his players, provides them with the tools to reach their highest potential and ultimately sets up our team for success.”
The Spartans are currently ranked tenth in the Inside Lacrosse Division II Preseason Top 15 Poll and first in the Sunshine State Conference rankings. However, the path towards the tournament for the Spartans won’t come without challenges.
Notably, the Spartans take on five of the top 15 teams in Division II. The Spartans will go head to head with the Limestone Saints (defending national champions), the Adelphi Panthers (no. 6) Lake Erie Storm (no. 9), the Mercyhurst Lakers (no. 11), and the Florida Tech Panthers (no. 13).
The Spartans start their run to a third straight Sunshine State Conference title Friday, Jan. 29 when they play the always tough IMG Academy at home.