DADE CITY — Saint Leo's history in softball didn't suggest the Lions would make the NCAA Division II tournament. But with a couple of former Plant City stars' help, the Lions pulled off a program first.
And defied many expectations..
"We were picked to finish seventh in our conference. Out of nine teams," remembers pitcher Megan Still, a Plant City High grad and one of several area players who contributed to Saint Leo's unprecedented success.
Needing a three-game sweep at Florida Southern to clinch the school's first conference championship, the Lions delivered, winning three close contests, including an 11-inning affair.
It kept the Lions one game ahead of the University of Tampa, an edge they maintained by winning 17 of their last 18 games. The Lions finished with a 40-14 overall mark, 20-4 in the Sunshine State Conference. Last year Saint Leo was 22-32.
But Tampa got its revenge, defeating Saint Leo in the South I regional May 18. And the Lions were eliminated the next day by Albany State. But with Still and her former Raider battery mate's help, Saint Leo had a season to remember.
Still almost didn't make it for her senior season. For the second half of 2011-12 she wore a walking boot on her ankle during the day, and pitched at night. The offseason revealed a fracture along with a variety of ligament tears and it was time for surgery.
"When I was told I might not be able to pitch again, that was not easy . . . especially thinking I might miss my senior season," Still said recently, her eyes welling up a bit at the memory.
Coach John Conway said the plan was to work Still out of the bullpen but after an early-season start went well, she got another and it was game on. Still (12-4, 1.91 ERA) said adding a nasty inside curve to her arsenal has been instrumental.
So has the team's not-so-secret weapon. After backstopping Alabama to the national championship a year ago, Kendall Dawson joined the Lions coaching staff.
There was and still is no pitching coach, officially, but yeah it's Dawson
"I've been in a million bullpens, so no big deal there," she said. "I just mostly teach them the mental game. A lot of players don't get that in high school. That's what pitching is mostly. You're not going to throw a perfect game, odds are, so a lot of your success is on how you respond to tough situations."
And Still, a close friend of Dawson's as they played on the same Raider teams, can't say enough about her pep talks and the "championship inspiration" Dawson has added.
Conway also stressed the impact Dawson has had.
"There's nothing I can say that can match Kendall just showing the team her (national championship) ring," Conway said. "That's the first thing I had her do — show 'em the ring."
Dawson felt strongly about the Lions heading into the national tournament, mostly because Conway was not afraid to schedule tough teams, rather than piling up wins and statistics against weak opponents.
In an early-season tournament, Saint Leo took on Armstrong Atlantic, which finished No. 4 in the country, and lost 2-0. The Lions split games with Columbus State, another top 20 foe. Their conference schedule was front-loaded. After taking two of three from Barry, the Lions hosted UT and barely avoided a sweep.
"We went 3-3 against them. Last year we would've gone 1-5, maybe 0-6," said Conway. "I told our girls at the time if we wanted to win conference we had to win 18 in a row."
As it happened, 17-1 did the trick.
"From a pitcher's point of view, you just think about getting three outs in an inning so . . . 18 games is a big task," Still said.
At the end of the regular season, Still was named a first team all-conference performer. That's pretty good for someone who almost didn't pitch this season.
Darek Sharp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.