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OCALA-- When he took over as head softball coach at the College of Central Florida, Kevin Fagan had a plan to make the Patriots a national power.
Fagan teamed with assistant coach Mike Lingle to recruit athletic players who could hit for power and also kept a year-round conditioning program. The blueprint to be successful has paid off for CF, as it produced its best-ever finish in Mid-Florida Conference play.
Now, the Patriots (39-12) will have a chance to show how far they've come, as they open play against Eastern Florida State on Saturday afternoon at 12 p.m. CST in the FCSAA Atlantic District Tournament at Exchange Park in Pensacola. The double-elimination tournament was pushed back one day to Saturday after the bad weather the Panhandle has experienced this week.
CF has been strong down the stretch.
One year after finishing up 2-10 to close the MFC schedule, the Patriots went 10-2 and were in contention for their first conference title until the final day of the regular season.
"I felt like we had to be in better shape," said Fagan, a former Super Bowl champion defensive lineman with the San Francisco 49ers of the NFL. "We've lifted weights all year and kept up our sprint program.
"Last year, we lost a lot of one-run games and a lot of second games of doubleheaders, but this year we were stronger and I feel we are peaking at the right time."
CF is bracketed with Seminole State and Indian River State and will face one of those two programs regardless of the outcome of its first game on Saturday at 5 p.m CST.
Execution in all phases of the game will be keys for the talented Patriots, who are nationally ranked in numerous categories in both hitting and pitching.
"I like our matchup (in the first round) and I feel that in all 12 games that we lost, we've beaten ourselves, so we really need to take care of what we do," Fagan said. "We can't give up the bad inning. If we can execute and take care of what we need to do I really like our chances."
CF is 12th in the nation with a single-season school record 58 home runs. Amy Szymanowski, a Florida State signee, hit 18 home runs this spring and has 34 for her career, just three away from the all-time state career record.
"She was worried coming into the season that she wouldn't have the numbers she had as a freshman, but she did even better as a sophomore," Fagan said. "She's our leader. She's a great defensive catcher and has had a great career for us."
Szymanowksi, one of nine sophomores for the Patriots, has received a great deal of help from the CF freshman class, led by all-state pick Jordan Lane, who hit .409 during the regular season.
"(Lingle) did a great job in recruiting and I really like this group because they aren't intimidated by anyone," Fagan said. "They are gamers. They don't care who they are playing. They go out there and do their job and play with a lot of confidence."
With such a high-scoring offense, the CF pitching staff is sometimes overlooked, but has more than held its own.
The trio of Taylor Bowen, Autumn Hanners and Belleview High School graduate Jamie Nelson, has enabled the Patriots to place among the nation's top 11 teams in ERA (fifth at 1.26), shutouts (11th with 10 shutouts) and batting average against (10th at .221).
"Each one of them brings something different to the circle," Fagan said. "Autumn throws hard and has been our closer and Jamie is more of a finesse pitcher who is very accurate.
"Then when Taylor is on, she can be as good as anyone. I like what all three of them have done this season and they've been an outstanding staff."
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FCSAA Atlantic District Tournament
When: May 3-5
Where: Exchange Park, Pensacola
Broadcast Info: Select games are available at www.psblive.com
Opening Day Schedule: CF vs. Eastern Florida State, Indian River State vs. Seminole, Santa Fe vs. Lake Sumter, Daytona State vs. Miami Dade, 12 p.m. CST; CF/EFS vs. Indian River/Seminole winners and losers, SFC/LSSC vs. DSC/MD winners and losers, 5 p.m. CST
Notes: CF reached the Atlantic District Championship Game last season for its best-ever finish in school history. The Patriots lost their opener last season to Indian River, before it reeled off four straight elimination games wins. Amy Szymanowski was an all-tournament selection for CF last season and hit the go-ahead three-run homer against Miami Dade to push her team into the Atlantic District finals. CF swept opening round foe EFS in Ocala back in February, went 4-0 against Seminole and 0-1 against Indian River. Overall, the Patriots are 13-10 against teams in their district. Taylor Bowen (18-6), Autumn Hanners (seven saves) and Jamie Nelson (14-2) have been strong in the circle for CF. At the plate, Szymanowski (18 homers) is just three home runs away from tying the all-time state career record. She's been backed by a lineup that has six other players with four or more home runs. Hanners (8 HR, 14 2B), Jordan Lane (.409), Taylor Morrow (.363), Lindsay O'Steen (.350), Jessica Nathan, Cheyenne Blaha and Lizzy Burchfield are others to watch for the Patriots at the plate.