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No. 5 Brenau focused on winning as a team
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Brenau University softball player Anna Maness takes her cuts during batting pratice at Lanier Point Park on Thursday afternoon.

Lana Lazar said playing at Division-I Florida International University was like living the "celebrity life."

There were autograph sessions, photo ops, and everywhere she went on campus, people knew she was a member of the softball team. Yet, she still prefers where she is now: playing for the fifth-ranked Brenau Golden Tigers.

"To me, this is more of a team," said Lazar, a junior transfer who played high school softball at Northgate in Sharpsburg. "I've played against UCLA and Florida, but I tell the girls everyday that our talent matches up with everyone."

The Golden Tigers are certainly proving that statement to be true.

Brenau (28-2, 12-0 Southern States Athletic Conference) enters today's doubleheader with Shorter riding a 15-game win streak, and its No. 5 ranking is the highest in program history.

"It's just a total team effort," said coach Devon Thomas, who started the program in 2004. "The players work hard and have really bought into the system and my style of coaching."

Success didn't come easy for Thomas and the Golden Tigers, who went 2-37 and 10-22 in the program's first two seasons. The early struggles were a product of the difficulties faced when trying to convince a high school player to continue her career at an all-girls college.

"You don't want to go to an all-girls school, but then you realize that you're not going for guys, you're going to play ball," said freshman Katie Bolin, a left fielder/catcher from Madison County High. "You don't notice it after a while, and besides, you get to focus more on schoolwork."

They also get to concentrate on softball, and that focus is paying dividends this year.

"We're going out to win every single time," catcher Morgan Smith said. "We just go out with the mindset of doing everything we can to win."

That's been the mentality since the program's third season when it started a string of five consecutive seasons with 30 or more wins. The program's high point came in 2009 when it won the conference championship and reached the NAIA national tournament.

Smith was a member of that team, and said this year's group has what it takes to get to that level.

"This team is more diverse," said Smith, one of the team's leading hitters. "Any player can go in at anytime and get the job done."

Thomas has proven that to be true, as he has played 30 different starting lineups in 30 games.

Leading the way for the Golden Tigers this year is junior Ellen Black, who is first on the team with 11 home runs and is ranked first in the conference with 1.68 RBIs per game. Black, Smith and sophomore Tiffany Schandera (.495 average) are three of the reasons why Brenau is No. 1 in the country in hitting with a team average of .435. The Golden Tigers are also No. 1 in defense with a .981 team fielding percentage.

Brenau is also finding success in the circle, with sophomore Anna Maness leading the way with a 15-1 record and a 0.68 ERA.

Add those three together and there's no wonder why the team hasn't lost since dropping two games on March 12.

"They just stay focused on the team they play," Thomas said. "The key is to not overlook anyone. You've got to be ready everyday, especially with that No. 5 next to your name."

For years, the Golden Tigers were the ones trying to knock off the top-ranked teams, which helps them concentrate on the goal of getting back to the national tournament.

Lazar thinks this team is more than capable of making that happen.

"I tell the girls all the time that just because Brenau is associated with the NAIA, it doesn't have to do with the skill level," she said. "You have to know you're the best."

The players know it, but they also are aware of what the program was like before the success. That mentality leaves the players confident, yet grounded.

"I'd say we're All-American confident," Lazar said. "We walk around with a swagger. We're the kind of team people hate to play because we're confident, and we know we can get the job done.

"We don't get caught up in our confidence and we don't get complacent."

Brenau has a tough four-game stretch that starts Friday against rival Shorter, which has reached the national tournament three years in a row. Following Friday's doubleheader, the Golden Tigers head to Cleveland, Tenn. to face Lee, which had 55 wins last season.

 

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