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BONA SOFTBALL MAKING GRADE ON AND OFF FIELD

One of the most telling statistics for the St. Bonaventure softball team is its grade-point average. It was about 3.57 for the fall semester. While the team has had academic success before, the high team GPA signifies something more than just performing well in the classroom. It has translated into surprising success on the field.

"We have a lot of smart kids," coach Mike Threehouse said. "This is not just the most talented team I've ever had, but the smartest team I've ever had in the sense of just knowing how things work. Sometimes kids don't understand the Division I level, but this team gets it."

How it works is this -- take your lumps in the early season non-conference games and get yourself poised to play your best during Atlantic 10 Conference games.

Sounds easy, and the Bonnies have made it look easy. After a 1-14 start in their southern road trip, Bona has won nine of its last 10 and is sitting at 6-0 in the Atlantic 10. With two to three wins in its next eight conference games, Bona should make the four-team A-10 playoffs for the first time.

The in-season turnaround is really more of a reality check. In Florida, the Bonnies played one of their toughest non-conference schedules, facing teams ranked in the top 50. Those teams had already played 20 games before Bona could even practice outside.

Therefore, one of the key elements to their A-10 success is keeping those first 15 games in perspective.

"We knew in Florida we would be playing great teams that had already played a lot of games," sophomore pitcher Christine Keleher said. "We knew more than anything it would be a learning experience. Obviously you don't want to lose but we couldn't get too bummed because we knew we had a lot of games to look forward to. You always want to win, but they were more like scrimmages in a way."

Keleher is an integral part of the Bonnies' mental adjustment and she's been an integral part of their adjustment on the field.

With a pair of wins over LaSalle last weekend, she has now thrown three straight shutouts and has not allowed an earned run in her last 25 innings. While that's pretty exciting to her, the wins are even better.

"Any way to win the game is fine with me," the former standout from Kenmore West said. "If they score five runs off me and we still win, it's all right with me."

But it's increasingly difficult for teams to score off Keleher. In A-10 play she has a 5-0 record and a 0.80 ERA. In 35 innings of work she has given up only 14 hits and has held opponents to a .121 batting average.

"Once she goes out on the mound, the team knows that they have a chance to win," Threehouse said. "Obviously, any time you walk on the field and know you have a chance, your confidence is going to be there. Our team knows that all we need to do is get a couple of runs and play good defense."

While a dominant pitcher can take a team a long way in the world of softball, Keleher is the first to admit that the teammates around her have made this run all possible.

Relieving some of the pressure for Keleher has been freshman pitcher Brianna Bricker, who walked on to the team two weeks before the start of school. Bricker is the team's hardest thrower with a 3-4 record and one shutout.

Defensively, Bona has been helped by the play of freshmen Ashley Bonetto (Orchard Park) at third base and Andrea Swanger at second. The duo has strengthened the team's defense, which leads the A-10 in fielding, while Bonetto ranks second in the A-10 with a .450 conference batting average.

The Bonnies put their perfect record on the line when they host Massachusetts (7-3 A-10) on Friday and Rhode Island (3-7 A-10) on Sunday.

"One thing that's different from last year is that we seem to play every game like this is the game that's going to matter," Keleher said. "We play each game like this is the game that's going to get us in the playoffs. We're all just excited to get there step by step."

Around campus

Looking for some free baseball? Next Tuesday and Wednesday, the Big 4 will play for the second annual Bison Cup at Dunn Tire Park. Niagara will look to defend its inaugural title after defeating St. Bonaventure, 8-7, in extra innings last year.

On Tuesday, Niagara plays Canisius at 3 p.m. with the University at Buffalo facing Bona at 7 p.m. Then Wednesday features the consolation game at 3 p.m. and the title game at 7 p.m.

Admission is free.

D'Youville junior softball pitcher Hilary South (Williamsville South) has continued where she left off last season. The 2004 NCAA Division III Batting Champion is hitting .400 this season. On the mound, she has struck out 82 batters in 59 innings. In the April 9 game against Baptist Bible College, she set a school record striking out 19 in nine innings in a 6-5 loss.

St. Bonaventure senior Mario Arce was named the Atlantic 10 men's tennis Player of the Year in voting by the conference's head coaches. Arce, who also won the award in 2003, posted three singles and two doubles wins in the recent A-10 tournament, where Bona finished third. Arce and teammates Nikhil Murali and Alejandro Nery were named to the all-conference team.

e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com