It was a sense of familiarity that drew Luke Benoit to the University of Tampa.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound right-handed hitter is originally from the Boston area, but had moved to Bradenton, Fla. to attend IMG Academy for his final year of high school.
Having initially committed to the University of Kentucky, over Vanderbilt, Benoit says a combination of the weather and how welcoming the Tampa area is led to his commitment to UT.
“Everyone dreams of playing in the SEC and all of that, but I just felt like the area of Tampa and the tradition that they have here was more appealing to me,” said the third-year Sophomore, who as with all NCAA spring athletes picked up an extra season of eligibility due to Covid-19 shutdowns.
“It definitely has that little hint of the northeast up here, about 75 per cent of the people are from the northeast here, they’re all running from the cold. And I was doing the same thing where, you know, the other places just didn’t feel as homey to me.”
The move paid dividends early for the Sport Management major, who won a ring with the Spartans as a freshman in 2019, albeit appearing in only two games. He says the time spent learning from the older guys on the team helped him grow as a hitter.
“They really gave me some good insight mentally, and my entire approach at the plate completely changed,” said Benoit, on a Zoom call. “A lot of it was kind of technique and just getting to be more consistent.”
He got his opportunity to show off those improvements last season before the NCAA stopped play due to the pandemic, hitting for a .302/.383/.377 slash-line (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage), adding one home run and eight RBIs in 53 at-bats from the right side of the plate.
Benoit has played once in Tampa’s three contests so far this season, not yet registering a plate appearance.
The Spartans need to play a minimum of 20 games this season to be eligible to compete for their ninth NCAA Division II championship. Last weekend’s series against Rollins being postponed now has them down to a possible 26 games to play just a few weeks into the season
“I think for us, we’re just focused on, you know, doing what we can do control we can control, but with everyone else, it’s just kind of like, we’ll see what happens,” said Benoit. “I think all of us are trying to be as positive as possible, but I know everyone in the back of the mind, it’s like, I hope another team doesn’t cancel on us because we’re already down to 26.”
To reduce the chance of COVID stopping their quest for another title, the outfielder says that he and the team are trying to avoid large crowds, instead focusing on school and baseball.
“The goal at Tampa never changes. Every year we bring in a squad that should bring home a ring, and the only thing that can beat us is ourselves,” said Benoit. “I think that this year we’ve put together quite the team, and I think we can pull it off again.”
The outfielder admits he misses having family – his parents and grandparents loved making the trip South to watch him play – and fans in the stands, but still manages to have an optimistic outlook on the situation.
“It’s tough,” said the No. 4 Massachusetts prospect from the Class of 2017, from his apartment. “But I mean, it’s either I’m here or I’m at the field, so two good places to be, right?”