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BULLS EASE UP FOR A FAST FINISH

Coach Marie Curran has to admit something about her freshman class.

They're goofs.

Though the rookies are talented players who have enhanced the team's skill level, it's their attitude that's made the biggest difference for the University at Buffalo softball team.

A combination of veteran seniors and happy-go-lucky freshmen has the Bulls poised for their first Mid-American Conference tournament appearance. The team is on a five-game winning streak, longest in the program's Division I history. In those games, it has surrendered only three runs. UB has won nine of its last 11 games and 11 of its last 15 to reach 15-23 overall and 8-5 in the MAC.

"They started joking around with each other and enjoying warmups. There hasn't been a moment of stress in the last 15 games," Curran said. "I have never seen 14 kids become so relaxed and loose and comfortable. They weren't having fun in the beginning of the year. Too many people were trying to carry the team individually and now they know all 14 girls in uniform have to perform along with the coaching staff. All of us are going to do it together."

Taking some of the pressure off the senior class became a key to Buffalo's success. Early on, upperclassmen saw it as their role to throw a no-hitter or hit a game-winning home run. Now, depth and a fun-loving attitude have allowed the Bulls to prosper.

"We took a learning experience from the seniors last year," senior Ann Magur said. "I think they put so much pressure on themselves and when it came down to the wire they tightened up. We've learned from that to just let it go. Let the bad at-bats go and let the mistakes go. I think it's made a big difference for us."

The attitude shift has helped the team win despite the fact senior Stacey Evans has pitched well (7-12, 2.35 ERA) but has not been dominant and that no one is batting above .300.

Evans, who recently recorded her 500th career strikeout, has a complement in sophomore Sophie Barstad (8-8, 2.45 ERA), who earned the team's first MAC Player-of-the-Week award this week for going 2-0 with a 0.54 ERA. She handed Central Michigan its second conference loss. The defense has been solid, too.

Magur leads the team with a .279 batting average and has driven in 12 runs, while freshman Laura Kor is hitting .262 with five home runs and 12 RBIs.

"We've always been sort of a late bloomer and started winning at the end of the season," Evans said. "I think this year we're finally peaking at the right time so that we can get into the playoffs and it's just been a real good team effort. That way nobody feels pressure because anybody at any time can get the job done. It's just really helped everyone relax and get their job done."

The turning point came against Northern Illinois when the Bulls were hovering around .500 in the MAC. Buffalo swept a doubleheader and the gap between saying they can play with anyone in the league and actually believing it was bridged.

The first order of business is making the MAC playoffs. The top eight teams in the league qualify. Last season, UB finished ninth. The Bulls are in fourth place in the conference and third in the East Division. They should at least make the playoffs. UB is scheduled to host St. Bonaventure for a nonconference doubleheader at 3 p.m. today. This weekend the Bulls are at Bowling Green of the MAC for three games, visit Niagara for a pair on Tuesday then close out the regular season with a three-game conference series at Ohio University on May 7-8.

Around campus

Niagara placed 10 student-athletes on Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference All-Academic Teams last week. Named to the golf team were junior Chris Agostinelli and sophomores Chris Hart and Dan Misko (Grand Island). Meanwhile women's tennis players making the academic team included seniors Mariam Al-Shikarchy and Kendra Daigler (North Tonawanda), junior Danielle Greiner and sophomores Jacquelyn Cary and Julianne Prokopich. The men's team had junior Erick Garcia and sophomore Justin McConkey named to the team.

St. Bonaventure sophomore Brian Pellegrini is one of 35 pitchers named to the midseason "watch list" for the National College Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA) 2005 Stopper of the Year Award, presented to the top relief pitcher in NCAA Division I baseball.

The finalists for the award will be announced June 1 and the winner will be named June 8.

Pellegrini, who is the Bonnies' closer and also their right fielder, leads the Atlantic 10 with seven saves in 16 relief appearances. He has a record of 1-2 and a 2.70 earned-run average.

Pellegrini also leads St. Bonaventure in batting (.377), RBIs (36) and home runs (7).

Though Niagara gave up a school record 25 goals in a 25-12 loss to LeMoyne, the Purple Eagles did set some positive records. Emma-Lee Harrison set a Niagara mark for most goals in a single season by a freshman with 28 while senior Rachel Jones secured sole possession of third on the school's all-time goals list with 25 this season and 85 in 52 career games.
e-mail: amoritz@buffnews.com

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