BY GABE COHN
There’s no denying the glory UT’s baseball team has brought to the school. Since 2006, the Spartans have won four Division II National Championships, had countless 40-plus win seasons, and produced a handful of MLB Draft picks.
The baseball program has served the UT community well with their continued success, but the varsity team is not the only component that makes up the prestigious program. UT also has a junior varsity program that has been going strong for over 20 years.
With so much talent arriving to the school year after year, several seasoned players get left off of the main roster. That’s where JV comes in. The program gives more players an extended opportunity to play competitive collegiate baseball while still giving them the chance to move up to the varsity team.
The JV squad is led by assistant varsity coach Mark Johnson, who serves as head coach, and his staff, which includes assistant coaches Garry Gawrych, Jake Bullington and Blake Nation.
For players who don’t make the UT varsity team, the only way to make the JV team is through tryout. Johnson and the rest of the coaching staff are allowed to tryout about 80 players for a couple of hours each fall. So with the limited time to work out players, the coaching staff focuses on the essentials: outfield, infield, pitching, catching and hitting skills. None of the JV players are on scholarship, meaning most players who make it do it solely for the love of the game.
The junior varsity program itself is essentially an extension of the varsity program. Both the JV and varsity teams are considered one main baseball program that is funded by UT’s athletic department. Both teams’ practice schedules mirror each other and they each compete against great college-level competition.
The JV team’s practice schedule mirrors the varsity’s because the players have to be fully prepared for a potential “call up” to the varsity team in case of an injury or due to overall good play. JV head coach Mark Johnson explained the mindset and values that they teach their players.
“It’s vital for our players to understand the team plays,” Johnson said. “They need to be able to focus in difficult moments to succeed. In terms of baseball skills, they need to be able to contribute to our varsity program’s continued success. We teach our players to be good “team guys”, good teammates, and that the big picture is more important than individual accolades.”
As for competition, the JV team plays several of the best junior colleges in and around the state of Florida.
“Our toughest competition is the local Junior Colleges,” Johnson said. “They send players to Division I schools, to several programs in the Sunshine State Conference, and to the MLB first-year player draft, so they are good competition for our team.”
Junior varsity infielder Zac Forsyth explained the vibe around the team and the amount of good competition that the team faces.
“The vibe around the team is fun,” Forsyth said. “We’re all friends and enjoy hanging out with each other. We take our season very seriously as we compete with some of the best JUCOs in the state of Florida. We have some very challenging games, and we enjoy going to battle with each other.”
The opportunity to play on UT’s varsity team gives many players the incentive to take the JV route because of the continued success of UT’s varsity team. A majority of the JV players are underclassman which gives them a couple years to refine their skills and make it to the varsity team. Forsyth explained why he chose the JV route.
“I ended up with one scholarship offer from Seton Hill, but I knew how elite the program was at the University of Tampa,” Forsyth said. “I talked briefly with Coach Urso, and he told me about the program and the possibilities the JV kids have of moving up to play for varsity. I felt my skills would give me a decent shot at moving up at some point in my career, so I turned down the Seton Hill offer and enrolled at the University of Tampa.”