Florida Southern Looking to Make Rivalry Game Statement Friday Night
Florida Southern and Tampa have met just twice before. Yes, they are both in the same conference and there are some issues bubbling below the surface when the two programs meet on Friday night, but can we really call this a rivalry game?
"This is definitely a rivalry game. Don't let it fool you," said Marty Ward, Florida Southern's head coach. "There are storylines throughout college lacrosse, but this is as big a rivalry in Division II as there is. It's only a year old, but with the exposure of the sport in the Sunshine State Conference and the competitiveness of the recruiting, it's a special young rivalry being birthed down here."
Despite the callow nature of the duel, there is some history behind it. Tampa played its first-ever game against the Moccasins last February and pulled out a surprising, 7-4 victory. Florida Southern turned around and terminated the Spartans magical inaugural run in the semifinals of the Deep South Conference tourney, 11-7.
And there's also that small fact that current Tampa head coach Rory Whipple used to be the head man at Florida Southern. And Ward was one of his assistants.
Ratcheting up Friday's game, which starts at 7 p.m. at Florida Southern, is the Moc's belief that they are being shortchanged. After their initial success and word of several talented recruits heading to Tampa, the Spartans have become the new darlings of Division II. During the run-up to this season, I even wrote about how the UT-Limestone contest on Feb. 15 should be one of the critical games in determining how the South region is going to shape up this spring.
That irks Ward.
"We've been overlooked all preseason, all summer," he said. "Everybody forgets who ended [Tampa's] season last year. That's kind of been our mentality — we've got a chip on our shoulder. Really no respect. Our program has gotten no talk about us. We work awfully hard and we have a lot of good players. Nobody should be talking about Limestone-Tampa. Everybody should be talking about Florida Southern-Tampa. It's a rubber match, and Friday night is going to be a battle."
Despite the lack of pub, Ward likes his team. He calls sophomore Dane Sorensen (35g, 12a as a rookie) 'a stud,' and said he compares favorably to any of the righty attackmen that Ward practiced against during his playing days at Limestone. Sorensen is one of the few players mentioned, however, because Ward has tried to mold his team into a grizzled, faceless unit that loves to grind.
Ward readily admits it's a philosophy that isn't for everyone.
"We got rid of a couple of guys at the end of last year who just didn't buy in fully," Ward said. "They were talented guys, but I want guys to buy in all the way. That's kind of our program's whole M.O. We want guys to be here four years and we want them to earn everything they get. Nothing is going to be handed to them here. It's a hard program to play in and a tough program."
In the small world of Division II, there aren't a whole lot of secrets. Coaches know which players are going where and can get a feel for the talent level of their opponent's early on. That's even more so for Florida teams, who are often vying for the same guys, whether they are in- or out-of-state. Ward has a decent idea what the Spartans will bring to Lakeland on Friday night, but he's more concerned about his squad.
"Tampa is going to have a little different dynamic this year," Ward said. "They got a lot of transfers in and that's kind of their whole style. We know what they return, but we're worried about our style, and that is to just be a gritty group. Florida Southern is not pretty. We kind of just get it done. That's been our mentality all preseason."
There's no underselling this game. The winner instantly becomes a favorite to earn an NCAA bid from the South region, if only for a week. Alas, like last year, this matchup will probably be the first of two. If the Deep South Conference is going to have a representative in the four-team South bracket, it will be the team that wins the league tournament in mid-April. So a rematch would have even more on the line.
But that's what rivalry games are all about, however young they might be.