By Kyle LoJacono
There’s a new level of excitement surrounding Saint Leo University’s baseball program.
The team has new batting cages, construction projects are growing the university itself and the Lions are off to a 15-5 start. The players can hardly contain their excitement for what is possible this season.
“Go Lions,” yells senior first baseman Anthony Santa as he runs to join his teammates during practice. His enthusiasm is shared by junior shortstop Frank Rawdow, who transferred from Mississippi State this year.
“When you look around campus the school is growing,” Rawdow said. “That’s exciting, but what’s even better is we’re winning. We’re hot right now and it feels good.”
They are excited after struggling through 19-30 and 20-34 seasons in 2011 and 2010, respectively.
“This is the best team here that I’ve been on,” said senior pitcher Aaron Brandt, a Pasco High graduate. “I felt like this was a year where we’d have a lot of success just based on the fall when we came together. We’ve progressed from then and gotten a lot better even in these first couple weeks.”
Brandt said the biggest difference has to do with the younger players becoming veterans.
Another part of the newfound success is the players spending time under coach Russ McNickle, who came from Mississippi State four seasons ago.
“I’m excited for this group because I feel like everyone is on the same page,” McNickle said. “If you think about it, all these kids were recruited by me except for Anthony Santa and Jamie Tutko, who were here when we were brought in. When you look at it our fingerprints are all over the program.”
Santa said McNickle’s even-keel nature has been important to the progression.
“I think the biggest thing with coach is he’s stayed consistent since Day 1,” said Santa, a Land O’ Lakes High graduate. “He’s always asked us for effort, but he also challenges us as a person, which develops into being a better baseball player. He knows what we need to do to win.”
McNickle deflected the praise for the success this season toward his players, especially the team-elected captains — Santa, Brandt and senior infielder Zach Miller.
“Anthony Santa is a guy who thought about leaving after my first year but really has found himself in our program,” McNickle said. “He’s a leader by his work ethic. The guys love being around him. Aaron Brandt is just such a consistent worker. You know what you’re going to get out of him day-in and day-out.
“Zach Miller transferred in from Saint Louis University, he was a freshman All-American there, and he’s also very consistent and a hard worker,” McNickle continued. “Not too high or too low, which is the way I try to be.”
The team is excited about the possibilities this season, but nothing comes easy in the Sunshine State Conference (SSC).
“The thing that got me excited about coming to Saint Leo is it’s in the best Division II conference in the country,” McNickle said. He then added, “We’ve stressed to these guys is expect to win every day. If they can get that mindset and keep working every day, which they have, that’s the phase that will get you to winning.”
McNickle has taken advantage of the hotbed of talent in the Tampa Bay area. Of the 35 players on the roster, 22 are from Pasco, Hillsborough, Pinellas or Polk counties.
“When I got here what got me excited is I was playing with a lot of local kids,” Santa said. “There were a lot of kids I’d played against growing up, so it was like playing on an all-star team. Now that we’ve been here for a while we understand that we can compete for a conference championship. We’re going to play every day like it’s our opening day and understand that we’re blessed to be playing for Saint Leo.”
The Lions host Warner University on Tuesday, March 13 at 6 p.m. before hosting a three-game series against SSC rival Barry University March 16 and 17.