October 17, 2012

30 in 30: Can Tampa Reach Its Improbable Goal?

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

With players like senior attackman A.J. DeSimone (27g, 3a), expectations are sky high at Tampa. "We're definitely shooting to be an NCAA qualifier," said Rory Whipple, the Spartans head coach. "And the way the team is shaping up right now, we'll be stronger and deeper, so that's a realistic goal."
© Todd Montgomery

Before Tampa had even played its first varsity game, Rory Whipple had high expectations.

Heading into last season, Whipple, the Spartans head coach, said that one of his goals was to be ranked in the weekly Division II men's coaches' poll. It sounded like a pipe dream for a first-year program, but Tampa nearly pulled off the improbable. It received votes for a couple of weeks on its way to an 11-5 record and a berth in the semifinals of the Deep South Conference playoffs.

What are the Spartans striving for in 2013? Based on Whipple's confidence level, the goal isn't terribly surprising.

"We're definitely shooting to be an NCAA qualifier," Whipple said. "And the way the team is shaping up right now, we'll be stronger and deeper, so that's a realistic goal."

Under the old Division II model, Tampa would be longer than a longshot for the postseason. With the expanded tourney in 2013, Whipple's objective isn't that far-fetched. Three of the four bids appear to be accounted for at this point (Mercyhurst, Seton Hill and Limestone), but the final invite should be up for grabs among the remainder of the Deep South, Conference Carolinas and ECAC teams.

If the Spartans do grab that final berth, they'll do it with a different model than last year's opening campaign. Utilizing his contacts above the Mason-Dixon Line, Whipple blended a group of transfers and grad school eligible players along with a smattering of true freshmen. This spring, it's back to a more sustainable model.

"This year, there are only a couple of transfers and mostly freshmen who came in," Whipple said. "We're going more traditional and getting kids for four years."

Whipple and his staff are still combing the hotbeds, but they're also keeping a close eye in their own backyard. The Spartans have several prep All-Americans coming in this spring from Florida, including attackman Joe McMahan out of Bishop Moore (Orlando) and Parker Watson from Ponte Vedra Beach.

The incoming class, combined with returners like midfielder Greg Griffo (14g, 19a), who earned all-conference honors in '12, sophomore attackman M.J. Lorenzo (15g, 12a) and junior middie Ryan Becker (9g) should give the Spartans plenty of power to compete for the Deep South crown. Add in junior attackman Andrew Smith, who redshirted last year after transferring in from Suffolk Community College and Andrew Motschwiller, an attack transfer from Army, and the outlook is even rosier.

From Whipple's perspective, perhaps the most important addition has been that of Chris Burdick to the staff. The long-time head coach at Providence who won the most conference titles in MAAC history, Burdick provides another experienced mind to help shape the Spartans.

"Our staff will be much stronger with Chris," Whipple said. "We now have four full-time coaches."

The Spartans will be facing some non-roster changes, as well.

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First, this will be the last year of existence for the Deep South Conference. With Lynn University (Boca Raton) adding men's lacrosse in 2014, the Sunshine State Conference will have six teams (along with Florida Southern, Florida Tech, Rollins and Saint Leo), triggering league sponsorship. The impact of conferences in Division II is less than the other divisions because there are no automatic qualifiers, but a strong league will have benefits in terms of strength-of-schedule and RPI.

"All the teams in the conference will be putting more emphasis [on lacrosse] because it will become part of the Director's Cup," Whipple said. "I see the Sunshine State Conference as a real strong conference down the road."

Second, Tampa expects its new, multi-million dollar field to be completed in time for the '13 campaign. Bolstered by a gift from Vince Naimoli, one of the founding partners of MLB's Tampa Bay Rays, the all-weather turf field will be the home to both the men's and women's programs.

The first team to visit the new complex? South region bully Limestone in late February. In addition, the Spartans face archrival Florida Southern and Saint Leo before the calendar flips to March.

"February is a rough month," said Whipple, with a laugh. "We're just hoping that we're working awful hard and hopefully things will work out. It's a gamble."

The schedule doesn't get a whole lot easier after that. Whipple promised his recruits from the Northeast that Tampa would make an appearance in the northern climes, and he delivered with brutal road games against NYIT and defending national champion Dowling. Add in a late-season trek to Colorado to face upstarts Colorado Mesa and Adams State, and the Spartans' résumé should be beefy enough to warrant tourney consideration if there are enough wins.

Can Tampa get those key victories? Only time will tell, but based on Whipple's previous predictions, it's dangerous to bet against the Spartans.

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