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Saint Francis looking to power through Arizona, Tucson Regional

The Red Flash have won 19 straight and lead the nation in homers heading into the NCAA Tournament

Photo via @RedFlashSB

Saint Francis ended Thursday’s practice at Hillenbrand Stadium with a bang.

Lots and lots of them.

The Red Flash hitters launched one softball after another into the metal left-field bleachers.

Clang. Clang. Clang.

One of those blasts even soared over the seats, landing mere feet from where Arizona head coach Mike Candrea was conducting his pre-postseason interview.

“That’s quite a shot,” he chuckled.

But he won’t be laughing Friday when his pitching staff has to try to keep Saint Francis in the ballpark to kick off the Tucson Regional.

The Red Flash have crushed 83 home runs this season, more than any other team in college softball. And it’s not just one or two hitters that are capable of going yard, it’s their entire lineup.

Saint Francis is the only Division I team with seven players with six or more homers.

“You really got to hit your spots one through nine,” said Saint Francis first baseman Madison Cabell, who’s bashed a team-high 19 round-trippers. “The bottom of the lineup can produce just as much as the top.”

“I’m so glad I pitch for this team and not against them because I can’t even imagine (what that pressure is like),” said Saint Francis ace Abby Trahan. “We don’t have very many holes.”

Most teams have some balance between their short-game and long-game, but Saint Francis unapologetically sticks with the latter.

“No matter what the count, what the score, that’s what we do,” said head coach Jennifer Patrick-Swift. “We talk about it every day. That’s what we live and die by. Whether we’re up by five or down by five, we’re going to keep swinging to either come back or to completely take over. And we literally live and die by the long ball. When we’re hitting home runs, there’s a good chance we’re going to be winning that game. If we’re not hitting home runs, then it might be a closer game.”

Saint Francis started its transformation into college softball’s Sultan of Swat about three years ago.

Patrick-Swift noticed how the sport was shifting from a low-scoring pitcher’s game to a high-scoring hitter’s game, and wanted to find a way to put Loretto, Pennsylvania — a tiny town of 1,302 that houses Saint Francis University — on the map. So she revamped her program’s plate approach and made power-hitting the No. 1 focus.

“What better way to be known than for hitting home runs?” she said.

Patrick-Swift took a page out of Major League Baseball’s playbook and trained her hitters’ swings to have a steeper launch angle, allowing them to get lift on virtually any pitch in the strike zone.

Saint Francis has been atop the home run leaderboard ever since.

“The best hitters in the country play Major League Baseball, and that’s how they swing, so why not emulate what they do?” Patrick-Swift said. “We had a ton of power, we were hitting a lot of that power foul, and we’d end up grounding out or something like that.

“So our staff did our homework and we figured out some things, talked to some people, made some changes and realized that there’s a better way to teach hitting and we gravitated towards that. We adopted that and luckily our kids bought in because it doesn’t matter what us coaches say if the kids don’t buy in. And they bought into that idea.”

Because what young, wide-eyed softball player wouldn’t buy in to that philosophy?

“It’s been fun, it’s helped recruiting,” Patrick-Swift said. “Obviously it never hurts to be talked about when you’re leading the country in something like home runs.”

Arizona ace Taylor McQuillin knows what she will be up against Friday, because everyone does when they face the Red Flash — power, power, and more power.

Yet, no one can stop them.

Saint Francis (39-17) has won 19 in a row heading into the Tucson Regional, and hasn’t lost a conference game in over two years.

“Watching film, they’re very aggressive,” McQuillin said. “They take their hacks and they’re not gonna use them lightly, no matter what count. Whether it’s an 0-2 count, a 2-1 count, or a 3-2 count, their swing is going to be the same every time. They’re not gonna cut their swing short. They’re gonna get every opportunity they can to take their big aggressive hacks.”

Don’t expect the Red Flash to be flustered by the postseason atmosphere, either. This will be their second straight year playing in the Tucson Regional. They played a regular season game at Hillenbrand in 2016, too.

“The first time we came here it was more of a learning experience, rather than trying to get after it,” said Cabell, a senior. “But this year it’s a lot more of a calm feeling.”

Besides, the warm, thin Tucson air is conducive to their offense anyway.

“Over the scoreboard, on the building, a couple in the stands, needless to say they’re going to sleep tonight feeling pretty good about how their bats were swinging today,” Patrick-Swift said after Thursday’s batting practice. “And hopefully we can say that tomorrow.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire