By Jeff Odom
The Saint Leo University (SLU) baseball team has dealt with its share of ups and downs the past few seasons.
The Lions (14-6) got off to a 15-5 start last season, but struggled once Sunshine State Conference play started. They dropped 18 of their final 25 contests to post a 22-23 record.
The year before, SLU finished 19-30.
Changes have come with a new attitude and set of expectations brought in by first-year coach Sean O’Connor, a member of SLU’s athletic hall of fame. He replaces Russ McNickle, who guided the Lions for five seasons before joining the San Diego Padres organization.
O’Connor said it took some time settling into his new role.
“It was unusual to come in the middle of an academic season before our season started, but I’m sure it was just as awkward for them as it was for me in the beginning,” O’Connor said. “I was fortunate that I already knew the assistant coaches here, so it wasn’t like I had to get to know everyone.”
SLU’s offense has been led by slugging outfielder Bobby Twitty (.474, 17 RBI), centerfielder Chris Newcomb (.453, six steals) and second baseman Ryan Brnovich (.405, 10 RBI).
Brent Krauss has racked up a 2.30 ERA in 31.1 innings of work as the pitching staff’s ace.
Twitty, a sophomore, said they have to stay sharp to avoid another midseason meltdown.
“We’ve just got to focus every day and play to the best of our abilities every single day,” said Twitty, a sophomore. “We can’t lighten up when it’s time to step up.”
Though the team jumped out with a quick nine-game winning streak and earned a spot in the NCAA Division II Top-30 poll, a four game skid with three conference losses made O’Connor question his players in what he described as “poorly played” contests.
SLU rebounded to win four straight, something the coach credits to the squad’s new approach.
“We have 15 seniors on this team, and for us to play in that fashion was unacceptable,” O’Connor said. “Are we loaded? No, but we have some depth and a lot of moving parts. That allows me to make some changes and move people around, and a lot of other teams don’t have that option.”
Besides setting his Lions up for success now, O’Connor is making sure he has the pieces in place to continue playing winning baseball in the future, and it starts with his young players.
Among the underclassmen are freshman starting shortstop/third baseman Taylor Perez (.950 fielding percentage), Wesley Chapel High graduate and sophomore pitcher Brandon Mumaw (1-0, 0.00 ERA) and freshman pitcher Chris Williams (1-0, 2.45 ERA). O’Conner said the trio is expected to be the foundation for the future.
Williams finished as Steinbrenner’s career leader in wins, strikeouts and ERA. He said the transition to college ball was eye-opening, but credited the guidance of O’ Connor and his former coach John Crumbley for making it easier.
“It’s pretty tough, because everybody is a lot bigger and stronger and the game is a lot faster,” Williams said. “You still have to go out there and win. So on that, it’s not too different from the high school level and I miss those guys, but my job is to be here and to win here, and Crumbley really helped me out with that.”
The ultimate goal for SLU is to stay competitive in the conference and improve on last season’s 4-16 SSC record to possibly compete for a championship.
Brnovich, a senior, said those days aren’t far away.
“We just have to know that we’re a good team, but we’re not going to come out here every day and think we can roll over teams,” he said. “This is the best pitching staff I’ve seen in four year, and it’s really kept us in the games. Once we get our bats going, I don’t think anybody can beat us.”
The Lions host Kentucky Wesleyan College March 12 at 11 a.m. They play at SSC rival University of Tampa for a three-game series March 15 to 16.
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