The Saint Leo Lions softball team is certainly turning some heads this season. Second year head coach — and Saint Leo alum — Erin Kinberger has brought her team to the forefront of DII softball in just a season and a half at the helm.
The Lions finished 29-21 in 2014, a year removed from making the NCAA postseason in 2013. Kinberger took over last year and in her first season, the Lions improved to 39-12. It was a team that got stronger as the year went on and finished on a remarkable run, shutting out their opponents in their final seven consecutive games of the season.
Despite closing out the season as one of the hottest teams in the nation, amid an 11-game winning streak, they would surprisingly see their season end in late April and not advance to the postseason.
“Last year was a hard lesson learned,” Kinberger said. “What I am most proud of is how these young women have learned from their past experience and turned it into a positive this season. Now, they understand what it takes and the details necessary to reach their goal, and have raised the bar for themselves.”
Being overlooked by the selection committee certainly struck a chord in the dugout as well. While the Lions are a young team — with a mere four seniors on the squad — there are plenty of returning starters who remember what last season felt like.
“The end of last season was truly heartbreaking for every single one of us,” senior pitcher Alana Tabel said. “We had a great run, we did the best we have in a while, and when it came to the selection show for postseason, we did not make it, and it was only by a hair. That proved to us that every single game on our schedule matters. Knowing that this year, we have worked even harder because we know how close we were and what it really takes to get there.”
Saint Leo has come out with a fire that has them performing at a level that very few teams are competing. They are doing it behind a balanced attack, one in which their pitching staff is leading the nation with a remarkable 0.30 ERA and an offense that finds themselves third in the nation with a .374 batting average.
Tabel leads this pitching staff that also consists of sophomore Samantha Tyler and junior Stephanie Adkins. Tabel is one of the few players that was on that last Saint Leo postseason team her freshman season.
“This team that we have my senior year has a completely different feel than the team we had my freshman year,” Tabel said. “I am going to have to give full credit to Coach K and her staff for these changes. They came in here and completely changed the culture of this team. We do not just play softball anymore, we love this game and we are truly hungry for wins every single time we step on the field.”
Tabel has really embraced the lessons of her new coaching staff. Kinberger’s assistant Maddie Holub — the 2015 NFCA Division II Assistant Coach of the Year — came in and has turned this pitching staff into one of the most dominating pitching staffs in the nation.
Tabel has reaped the benefits. Last season, under Holub’s tutelage, she had a career season, finishing 16-5, with a 0.94 ERA and a career best 105 strikeouts. This year, she finds herself sitting at 9-0 with an astounding 0.27 ERA as the the senior anchor of Saint Leo’s unbelievable arsenal of pitchers.
“As a pitcher, I have grown a lot here at Saint Leo University,” Tabel said. “My first year here I had a great year, and then my sophomore year was not a good one at all. My junior year is when Coach K and Coach Holub came in and took over the program and I had the best season of my life. Coach Holub hates when I say this but I give almost all credit to her for the progress I have made. Pitching is not just a job for me anymore, it is truly fun and I enjoy every single moment I have out on the mound.”
Adkins and Tyler’s work on the mound can’t go unnoticed, however. Adkins is currently 9-1 with one save and a 0.42 ERA while Tyler is 5-0 with a 0.20 ERA. Combined, they have allowed seven total earned runs en route to 15 shutouts in 24 games.“Our pitching staff is phenomenal,” Kinberger said. “We are fortunate to have in my opinion three No. 1s. They work together and have each other’s backs. We have a lot of minds working together during the games starting with our catcher Sommer Pollard who knows each pitcher like the back of her hand.”
“The pitching staff we have this year is the best pitching staff I have been a part of in my life,” Tabel added. “As a battery, we look at each other as a team within a team. We all work together in the bullpens and encourage each other to improve every day. When one of us has trouble with something, one of us steps in and tries to help and says what personally helps us in those situations. It makes me so happy that we have 3 “number ones” on this team, because if I ever get a jam, there is not one pitcher I would prefer over the other one to come in for me, I know both of them would get the job done. We all have one common goal on this team, it is to win and win a national championship. None of us care how it takes to get there.”
Kinberger is not short of weapons on the offensive side of the ball, however. While they may not top the charts in the power department, Kinberger and her staff have learned to execute the perfect blend of small ball to compliment their amazing rotation.
“The balance is a blessing and the depth has been essential in our success,” Kinberger said. “We all focus on “doing our job great” which together makes for a force to be reckoned with.”
The offense has been led by a blend of young rising Saint Leo future stars as well as some of the veterans. Take freshman second baseman Brooke Samios-Uy for example, who has caught the SSC’s attention in her first season. She is currently batting .388 with a team best 26 RBI.
“Brooke has had a very impressive start to her freshman season,” Kinberger said. “She is extremely athletic and comes up with balls that makes our dugout roar with excitement. Her approach to the plate is simple and clear minded which is not only impressive but fun to watch a ball player trust her preparation and simply play the game.”
Senior outfielder Tiffany Thompson and junior centerfielder Racheal Heath are two of the veteran players whose drive for the postseason has clearly been exhibited in their play this season. Thompson — who has never batted better than .333 in her Saint Leo career — is currently batting .422, going for a career best 10-for-10 in stolen bases thus far. Heath — who’s never batted above .300 — is hitting .486 with a team best 22 stolen bases.“Tiffany Thompson has literally grabbed a hold of an opportunity and not let go,” Kinberger said. “She is very strategic and a smart ball player who comes to win every day. Racheal Heath is an all-around phenomenal athlete with speed, power, a canon with a laser, and game knowledge that allows all of her athletic ability to shine in the moment.”
All of this has led to a 23-1 overall record. They sit atop the Sunshine State Conference with an 8-1 record. This past week they reached No. 9 in the most recent NFCA Coaches Poll, a mark that happens to be the best in program history.
“To say I’m proud is true but an understatement,” Kinberger said. “I am floored by this team’s maturity, “buy-in” to what we as a staff ask of them, and most of all their determination as a team day in and day out. I’m truly blessed with this group of young women and my staff.”
While the Lions learned last season that you can never look too far ahead and that the season is the cliched one game at a time, it hasn’t diminished their desire and drive to reach their ultimate goal. Saint Leo softball came into this season looking to prove that they belong amongst the best, and in doing so, Kinberger and her Lions are showing that they deserve their rightful spot alongside the best of DII’s elite.
“Looking back at last year, my team truly accepted me, bought into my coaching style, and the direction I wanted to take the program, as much as I bought into them as players and a team,” Kinberger said.
“Together we started building the culture of what we wanted Saint Leo Softball to represent, on and off the field. Their hard work, leadership, and love for the game made for a very successful year, but we fell short of our ultimate postseason goal. That heartbreak would prove to all of us that we had started a great thing here together. This year, our kids have continued the culture and have realized the importance of each game, and as simple as that sounds, it has been the key to our success this season.”