ST. LEO - It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Saint Leo's baseball program changed dramatically, but the differences could be seen and heard throughout offseason conditioning.
One day this summer, senior lefthander Carter Clements stepped onto the field for workouts and was distracted by the sound of former Ridgewood star Aaron McLamar, who redshirted last season, ripping line drives in batting practice.
When he entered the dugout, Clements found himself making conversation with practically everyone on the team. Last year, the Lions slowly broke off into separate groups, which made camaraderie a scarce commodity.
"We're together as a team. Everybody gets along, we never have any bickering," Clements said. "And we've got a lot of talent."
But by far the most noticeable difference this season is the players themselves. Of the top seven hitters on last year's 26-25 squad, only one (Yunior Tabares) is back.
That's hardly a bad thing, according to Coach Ricky Ware, who has set lofty goals for this team, including 40 victories, a Sunshine State Conference championship and trip to the NCAA II South Regional, something his seniors have never experienced.
"It'd be really, really nice to get those guys to the postseason," Ware said. "If you win 40 games, in our conference, you're going to the postseason. They go hand-in-hand."
After a busy offseason, Ware added 16 new players to the roster, including three transfers from the University of South Florida who combined to start 101 games for the Bulls. First baseman Brandin Daniel led USF with seven homers and 45 RBIs in 2007. Braulio Pardo, a switch-hitting catcher originally from Land O' Lakes, and versatile outfielder J.C. Suarez, round out the group.
The projected lineup includes only four players on last year's roster. Two - infielders Tabares and Devon Cason - started all year, one - former Pasco High standout outfielder Kyle Hobbs - got opportunities early in the season but is expected to improve on his .255 average and 10 steals, and the fourth was the redshirt McLamar, a second baseman.
Other newcomers include left fielder T.J. Alonzo, a junior who hit .319 for the University of Tampa in 2005, then transferred to St. Petersburg College, where he hit .330 last spring. A pair of former Santa Fe Community College players, shortstop Bobby Munoz and outfielder Jonathan Duncan, hit .328 and .312, respectively, a year ago.
"The depth that we have is the best that we've had since we've been here," Ware said. "The strength is the offense, a little bit of everything. We have two or more guys at each position that I would have no problem playing this year. I've never had that before."
The pitching staff, which includes returning starters Clements, Ryan Clark and Shane Buriff, as well as closer Matt Smith (Sr.) and much of last year's bullpen, is where the core returning players come from.
Clark, a fifth-year senior described by Ware as "the catalyst" of the SLU staff, was the Lions' regular "Friday" starter last year, often facing the best starters in the Sunshine State Conference in the first game of those series. Nonetheless, the lefthander posted a 9-2 record with a 2.61 ERA, averaging 9.7 strikeouts per nine innings.
Clark got a first-hand look at the offense, as the Lions hit 14 homers in three intrasquad games, and realized how exciting his final college season might be.
"When they're consistently hitting home runs, line drives in batting practice, you see it," Clark said. "Personally, I'd like to go out with a bang. Last year was not very good. It would be an experience."