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Monarchs continue to slam ball, foes

For the second consecutive week, the Saint Leo College baseball team loaded up on games to prepare for the bulk of the Sunshine State Conference regular season. And for the second time in as many weeks, the Monarchs came out nearly spotless.

In the past eight days, Saint Leo played 10 games and won eight of them.

"Overall, we're playing well," said coach John Schaly. "We're swinging the bats well and getting good pitching. Because we have played so many games, we have had to use our entire pitching staff.

"We might be a little bit "We might be a little bit tired, but we have played a lot of people so that's not such a big thing. I think we will be fine. Baseball is a game you have to continue to play to be at your best. When you get on a roll you have to keep playing."

The roll began last Wednesday when the Monarchs (21-4, 2-1 in the SSC) pounded Division I Temple University 21-3. Freshman Jason Branch went 4-for-5, while Matt Gifford and Tom Valdez each had three hits in one of Saint Leo's best performances at the plate. Junior Jason Anderson pitched four innings, struck out four and allowed two runs on three hits to get the win.

The assault continued Thursday against Bluefield College as Saint Leo hammered 18 hits in an easy 15-1 victory. Junior Chad Liggins gave up 12 hits and struck out four for the victory. Gifford had two RBI, R.J. Hendricks went 3-for-4, and Branch, Joel Rosa and Jason Linkes each had two hits.

Gifford's RBI single in the fifth led Saint Leo to a 3-2 victory over Ithaca College the following night. Jason Middleton got the win and Joel Arroyo recorded the save as Rosa went 2-for-4 with a run scored.

The Monarchs completed a three-game sweep of Temple by winning both games Saturday. Freshman catcher Curtis Bliss drove in Eddie Diaz with a sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 11th to give the Monarchs a 3-2 win in the opener. Diaz had two doubles and two runs scored. In the second game, Rosa hit a solo homer and Hendricks, who also homered, drove in Don Whitehead as part of a two-run sixth that gave the Monarchs a 3-2 win. Arroyo got both decisions.

On Sunday, Branch and Gifford both were 3-for-4 and Hendricks had two more doubles as Saint Leo had 10 extra-base hits in a 16-8 victory over Montclair State. Sophomore Pat Bowen (1-0) allowed two earned runs and two hits over five innings for the win.

The Monarchs made it eight in a row on Monday when they defeated Framingham State 10-2. Linkes was 3-for-4 with two RBI and Gifford, last year's SSC batting champ, added two more hits and two RBI. Liggins (3-0) went the distance and gave up two runs on seven hits.

During the streak, the Monarchs hit .385 with 114 hits, 25 doubles, four triples and eight homers, and outscored opponents 87-21.

The win streak, however, was snapped Monday night as Army waxed Saint Leo 9-1 for the Monarchs' first loss at home.

Auburn University at Montgomery made it two losses in a row when it defeated Saint Leo 5-0 Tuesday night.

BACK IN THE RANKINGS: After taking over the No. 1 spot in Division II for a short period last season, the Monarchs are looking to get to the top again. They enter this weekend's conference series against the University of North Florida ranked No. 7 in the nation.

The road will not be that easy as four SSC teams are ranked in the top 25. The University of Tampa (19-6) and Florida Southern (23-4) are ranked No. 1 and 2 respectively, North Florida (15-8) is No. 14, and Florida Tech (18-4) is No. 24.

"I don't think there's any question that this is the best Division II baseball conference in the country," Schaly said. "Consider that we have three of the top seven teams in the nation. It's the best baseball in the country. If you're competing for a conference championship here, you are a legitimate national championship contender."

CHIP OFF THE OLD BRANCH: When centerfielder Allen Dina went down with an injury (lacerations to the face following a collision with a wall), Branch got the call and has let no one down. The former star at Hernando High now leads the SSC with a .484 batting average. He hit in 16 straight games before going hitless against Army, and has seven doubles, a triple, a home run, 27 runs scored and seven RBI.

During the Monarchs' eight-game win streak, Branch was 17-for-29 (.586) with seven doubles and 13 runs scored.

"He's been playing great both offensively and defensively," Schaly said. "He stepped in nicely when Allen went down and that's what we needed. He has come on strong in the last three weeks and that has been a real big plus."

UN-BOWE-LIEVABLE: Saint Leo senior shortstop Kelly Bowe continued her torrid NCAA record pace for triples. Bowe, the Division II career triples leader, has added seven this season to carry her all-time record to 36. The native of Tampa is the only active player among the top 20 career leaders.

INSTANT HELP: After missing the first eight games while playing for the basketball team, Julie Becker's impact is noticeable. The senior centerfielder leads the team with a .450 average (fourth in the SSC) and with five doubles. She is second with 10 RBI.