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LORETTO – When MeKenzie Saban steps into the left-handed batter’s box as the leadoff hitter for third-seeded St. Francis Thursday in the Northeast Conference Tournament, she will feel at peace.

With a .376 average this season, the sophomore is a prototypical table-setter for the Red Flash, and the numbers speak for themselves. Breaking single-season records in at-bats, hits and doubles for the program, Saban has staked her claim for the conference’s top player this season.

But she could easily make a claim for most improved player as well. 

Last season as a freshman, Saban was resorted to mostly a pinch-runner role, only seeing a total of 38 at-bats and a .105 average. But with first-year coach Jess O’Donnell’s philosophy of consistency and contact, Saban has been able to thrive.

“As soon as I talked to Coach Jess this summer and she told me her philosophy was consistency, I knew right away that I was going to be able to mesh with that,” said Saban, who hit .629 her senior year of high school and .721 as a junior. “As soon as I got that phone call, I started working on consistency. I was at the field every single day this past summer trying to get back to my old swing.”

Going from a home-run mentality in the batter’s box back to a more natural approach was tougher than Saban anticipated. Her hitting coach growing up preached the importance of hitting line drives, but the path to more playing time this season was filled with anger and defeat.

“I thought it wasn’t going to be as difficult as it was, but there were days this summer where I was hitting the ball in the air and over the fence, but I wasn’t making solid contact and I wasn’t feeling confident in my swing,” Saban said. 

“There were days where I would get frustrated and I’d have to sit down my bat, regroup and go back to the field the next day or later on in the same day. Every day since I was 11-years old I would take 10,000 swings in the offseason. They say it takes 10,000 swings to break one bad habit. I knew I had to do well more than 10,000 swings this offseason to get back to my old swing.”

Saban’s journey to the top of the lineup lasted well throughout the offseason. 

She struggled during the fall slate at the plate, but continued to work throughout the winter to tinker with her mechanics. It wasn’t until the first weekend of the regular season at Georgia Southern where Saban was able to shine.

“I brought her in the office and we really dissected her approach,” O’Donnell said. “At Georgia Southern, she wasn’t even my leadoff. I didn’t even know she loved leadoff or did it in high school, so I said let’s give MeKenzie a shot and she did the role really well. In the winter, she would go into the cage and swing as hard as she could.”

In the field, Saban slots in at shortstop when Mikayla Bower heads to the pitching circle. She can also play third base and the outfield as well, but hasn’t missed a step when called upon to flash the leather.

“She worked really hard; there are some days she looks awesome at shortstop and Mikayla looks a step behind, and it flip flops,” O’Donnell said. “They challenge each other in a good way.”

St. Francis finds itself in slightly unfamiliar territory, having to head to Long Island-Brooklyn for this year’s conference tournament. The Red Flash have hosted the past two NEC Tournaments, winning both. This season, St. Francis will face second-seeded Sacred Heart in the first round Thursday at 3:30. The Red Flash look to become the first team to win three-straight conference tournaments since host Long Island accomplished the feat from 2006-08.

“We play our best ball when our backs are against the wall; I’ll stand by that,” said O’Donnell. “They like the pressure. We need our senior leadership to step up because they’re the only ones that have been here before. 

“Our biggest downfall has been having runners in scoring position and unable to score them with less than one out.”