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Lions retain lofty goals

During the preseason, Saint Leo softball coach Christi Wade spoke optimistically of winning the first Sunshine State Conference title in the school's 26-year history.

A disheartening 12-11 start has not swayed the coach's lofty goal.

"I thought we'd be much better at this point," said Wade, who with 213 career wins is approaching the all-time mark of 218 set by Ray Carver.

"We've got 34 games left and we need to finish up 46-11."

While winning the remaining games is unlikely, Wade does not rule out another 40-win season. Last year, the Lions won a school-record 42 games and were SSC runners-up.

In a tune-up for conference play, Saint Leo played host to the fourth annual Outback Invitational during the weekend, and that series was not concluded for the first time.

Saint Leo, which has never won the tournament, tied Valdosta State for third place. Those teams, along with Florida Southern and Ashland College of Ohio, reached the semifinals before they and the final were rained out. Florida Southern was declared champion because of run differential.

Saint Leo won its only game in pool play, 2-1 over Tampa. Gina McKeon's two-run double in the sixth inning scored Denyve Duncan and Alena Gerrell. That backed Katie Heintz's three-hitter, which included eight strikeouts and five walks.

Heintz has emerged as the Lions' leading pitcher. Heather Gamlin, who was all-conference second team, won 32 games and fanned 267 last season, was slowed earlier this year by an ankle injury.

Heintz has shouldered most of the load. The freshman left-hander is 7-4 with a 1.14 ERA. She has 74 strikeouts and has limited opponents to a .115 average.

"Heintz had to step in at the beginning of the season when Heather went down, and she's performed really well," Wade said. "It's been a very pleasant surprise."

Gamlin practiced this week. She is 3-6 with a 1.96 ERA. Meanwhile, senior right-hander Lacey Hardesty, who spent most of last season on the injured list, is 2-1 with a 3.29 ERA in a limited role.

Jennifer Kwaitkowski, a senior catcher/designated hitter, leads Saint Leo with a .326 average and is one of the three .300 hitters. Duncan, a sophomore middle infielder, is hitting .309 and Gerrell, a freshman outfielder, .304.

Duncan, the SSC Freshman of the Year, also is the team leader in hits (25), runs scored (19) and stolen bases (18).

Katie Kilfoile and McKeon share the team RBI lead with 12.

The Lions, 0-5 on the road, open conference play with Saturday's doubleheader at Lynn and Sunday's doubleheader at defending SSC champion Barry. Both series start at 1 p.m.

SSC OPENER: Saint Leo's baseball team opens conference play today by playing host to Florida Tech at 7 p.m. The three-game series continues with Saturday's doubleheader at 1 p.m.

The Lions (5-13) won two of their three games this week. On Monday, they defeated Merrimack (Mass.) 18-11 before Tuesday's doubleheader split _ a 10-8 win followed by a 12-4 loss _ with Shippensburg (Pa.).

In the win over Shippensburg, Mike Stepp (Zephyrhills) had three hits, two RBIs and two runs. He also earned his second save.

Jason Lopez had three hits and three RBIs and Rich Hittel (Ridgewood) improved to 2-0.

In the win over Merrimack, Joe DiLeo, Stepp and Lopez each had three RBIs. Reliever Trey Evans (1-0) (Pasco) got his first win.

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