Since Erin Kinberger took over the Saint Leo softball program in 2015 after an 11-13 finish in the Sunshine State Conference, the Lions have become a perennial threat for the postseason. Perhaps Kinberger’s best move as skipper of the Lions was naming Maddie Holub her pitching coach.
Holub made an immediate impact at Saint Leo. She took a pitching staff that had a mere three shutouts the season prior to her arrival and turned them into one of the most dominant in Division II. In her first season, she guided a pitching staff to a program-record 18 shutouts, earning 2015 National Fastpitch Coaches Assosciation DII Assistant Coach of the Year honors. Her Lions pitching staff followed up that performance by leading all of DII with a 0.93 ERA in 2016.
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Those staffs were led by Alana Tabel, the winnigest pitcher in Saint Leo history, and reigning SSC Pitcher of the Year Stephanie Adkins.
“Coach Holub is an unbelievable pitching coach,” senior ace Stephanie Adkins said. “She has not been out of the game too long, which makes working with her so enjoyable. She pushes us to our full potential and always brings new ideas to the table to make us a better staff. Not only is she great in the bullpen, she is also able to communicate with us on an emotional level because she has been in our shoes before and was extremely successful in her collegiate career.”
Tabel was lost to graduation, leaving Adkins the ace of a relatively new staff. Junior Alison Mitts and freshman Sara Neuman had some big shoes to fill, as Tabel was responsible for 14 wins and a 0.66 ERA last season. Thus far, they have been able to hold their own, making the transition stress-free.
“Working with Alana Tabel was an unbelievable experience and one that I will cherish forever,” Adkins said. “I was very excited when Alison Mitts and Sara Neuman joined the staff. We all work together extremely well and all have differences that make us a very diverse pitching staff.
“Our expectation as a staff continues on each year and always will in the same fashion. We strive to be the best and know that we can because we put so much effort into our work. I wouldn’t say that I felt any kind of pressure coming into this year because I know that we operate in a family dynamic and pick each other up when needed.”
Adkins entered this season with even more accolades to her name. She – along with Lions senior outfielder Rachael Heath – was on the NFCA preseason player of the year watchlist. Honors and awards, however, aren’t what Adkins strides towards.
“To be completely honest, I was unaware that I was even on the watchlist,” Adkins said. “Our team focuses on the idea of inside out. We don’t let outside factors pressure us to live up to any kind of expectation because we only worry about what we are doing within the team. It is an incredible honor to know that I was recognized prior to the season starting, however, last year’s accomplishments are in the books and the only thing we are motivated on is winning a national championship this year.”
Adkins has done her part to get Saint Leo back in the championship hunt. The senior, right-handed hurler is 17-3, with 124 strikeouts, four shutouts and a 1.02 ERA, 12th best in DII.
“I feel that what has made me a successful pitcher for Saint Leo has been the trust that my team has in me and that I have in them,” Adkins said. “There is no better feeling as a pitcher than to have a confident defense behind you. Our coaching staff holds us to an elite standard and we are expected to always play at that level. The constant drive and work ethic that Saint Leo softball has is what has made me successful here at this school.”
The Lions are already 31-7 heading into this week’s series against Florida Tech, ranked No. 5 in DII and No. 1 in the SSC. They are on pace to best the consecutive 39-win seasons Kinberger has posted since her arrival. They are just 12 wins shy of the program record with 12 regular season games remaining, with a near-certain spot in the postseason ensuing. None of those games are as big as the Tampa series – who are currently trailing Saint Leo by one game in the SSC – next week.
“Our team has a saying called 0-0 mentality,” Adkins said. ”Every game we play, we approach it as our first game of the season. At this point in time, our upcoming series is against Florida Tech. My mindset, as well as the team’s, is on beating Florida Tech this week. That is what we are most excited about right now. We will focus on Tampa when the time comes and when they are our next opponent.”
Last season was a strong one for the Lions, but it ended early at the hands of the eventual national champion North Alabama. Adkins, Heath and their fellow seniors have captured an SSC title. Before their collegiate career comes to a close, they have have one more title in mind.
"The results from last year definitely left a bad taste in our mouths," Adkins said. "As seniors, I think we have looked past the shortcomings of last year and have realized that this year we want to be a part of something special. There is definitely a championship mentality throughout the entire team and not just the senior class this year. I think that is what makes the Saint Leo softball program so successful. Our culture and our passion are shared throughout the entire team and we don’t stop until we reach our goals."