A Complex Rivalry is Birthed Tonight in Florida
Some rivalries evolve via the natural relationship of the schools involved. Others are born out of something a little more complex. Both will be true when Florida Southern and Tampa meet this evening in the season- and conference-opener for both teams.
FSC and UT are traditional archrivals. While it doesn't sponsor lacrosse yet – both teams are currently in the Deep South Conference – the Sunshine State Conference is the institutional home of both athletic departments, and there has been plenty of history built up between the two schools. Just like with Auburn-Alabama or Harvard-Yale, when Florida Southern and Tampa compete in anything, it means something more.
"I think the whole athletic department understands – and certainly in the eyes of my AD and school president – that the Tampa-Florida Southern lacrosse game is just as big as the Tampa-Florida Southern basketball or baseball game," said Marty Ward, FSC's second-year head coach.
There's a little something extra on the lacrosse side, however.
Ward is the head coach of the Mocs because he was brought to Lakeland as an assistant coach by Rory Whipple, who started the FSC program in 2009 and went 8-15 during his two seasons. Prior to the 2011 season, Whipple left to start another program. That program? Tampa, of course.
Now Whipple starts his new gig by taking on his previous employer. Not surprisingly, it's something that the Mocs are well aware of, including the four seniors – Andrew Almansberger, Jon Freda, Adam Ismaeil and Mat Thompson – who were on that first FSC squad Whipple cobbled together.
"It'll always be in the back of our mind," Ward said of Whipple's presence on the other sideline. "I've told these guys to understand that emotions are going to be high during this game, and they have to keep their head and keep cool. They have to understand that Coach Whipple saw greener pastures elsewhere and they are still here with me. It's fine that he recruited some guys and did what he had to do and moved on to a different school, which is awesome, but it's always going to be an underlying story in this game. All the hype culminates tonight at 7 p.m."
Even though Florida Southern is bringing a relatively experienced team to tonight's game against a first-year program, it's going to present a stiff challenge for Ward and the Mocs. Whipple has been shaping a Spartans' roster comprised of 23 transfers and 19 freshmen, so this isn't necessarily the typical start-up. And, although Ward knows Whipple's philosophies after working as his assistant, there's still danger in the unknown.
"The first game is always tough," admitted Ward. "You can ask around and try to figure out some of the stuff they are doing. It's just so difficult to play a team first and have a scout on them. The boys are prepared and understand what is going on tonight. We're just going to get out there and play hard, doing things the way we do things."
Ward feels good about his team's chances tonight, but he's just as excited about this game from a rivalry, state and divisional perspective.
"Coach Whipple and myself have the same mentality where we both want to be champions," Ward said. "It's going to be a battle, and that's the only way we'd want it to be. That's the best way for the sport of lacrosse in Florida, and Division II lacrosse as a whole. We need to have more of these rivalries and storylines going on in D-II to compete with the D-I and D-III storylines that they have each week. I think it's important, and I think D-II lacrosse will definitely benefit from Florida Southern and Tampa having this kind of game."