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After winning the NCAA Division II championship title last season, the University of Tampa baseball team is setting its sights on a new bracket of opponents.
The Spartans are headed to Cuba for a baseball tournament and cultural exchange program next week, university athletics officials announced Thursday afternoon.
My guys will be able to see some of the best baseball players in the world, head Coach Joe Urso said. This trip will be very unique in the sense that its not just baseball, but tours and understanding the history of Cuba.
Among the teams UT will play are the Industriales Blue Lions, Mayabeque Hurricanes and Artemisa Hunters.
The players also will meet and train with the Cuban Baseball Team and Matanzas Baseball Team, officials said.
The team is scheduled to arrive in Cuba on Sunday and remain there until Jan. 19. It will tour local attractions and sample Cuban cuisine, as well as participate in community service projects, officials said. The Spartans plan to play at least four pre-season baseball games and work with Cuban trainers and coaches, as well as with students and faculty from the University of Havana.
Sponsors from the World Trade Center of Tampa, the UT Athletic Department, the UT Office of International Programs and the People to People organization made the trip possible.
The Spartans have been practicing since Jan. 2 to prepare for the trip, Urso said, and the players are excited to go up against some of the best players in the sport.
We're working hard to make our country proud, he said.
The team has a full itinerary, which includes meetings, social events and ballgames with local youngsters. Coincidentally, a group of fellow UT students are in Cuba on a 10-day trip for a Department of Government and World Affairs class focusing on Cuban culture. The class likely will be able to cheer on the team during one of its games.
We look forward to the experiences, especially with the Cuban culture and the non-baseball part of the trip, UT senior Zach Gawrych said in a news release.
Tampa and Cuba might not always have had a political relationship, but they consistently have had a baseball relationship, said Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, who played in baseball tournaments in Cuba as a boy.
He said the UT baseball team is lucky to be able to compete against talented Cuban ballplayers. The trip is a historic event, he said.
Baseball is a portion of it, certainly, Miranda said. Culturally, I think it's a great thing for these countries to understand each other, and that's what this is all about.
This will be the first trip to Cuba for each of the players and members of the coaching staff, Urso said. After hearing Miranda talk about his experience playing in Cuba in 1954, he always has wanted to be able to take his team and provide those memories for his players.
And the team is most excited to learn about the Cuban culture and interact with some of the kids there, Urso said.
The players are going to come back with a lot more to talk about than just baseball, he said.
UT finished the 2013 season with a 47-12 record and brought home the Division II championship title in June after defeating Minnesota State University. The Spartans are ranked as the top team in Division II pre-season polls.
Last season was the sixth time the team has won the Division II championship since 1992.