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Back in the swing

After a slow start, Clearwater native Brian Leclerc is hitting at a blistering pace entering Florida's key series against Tennessee.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published May 17, 2007


GAINESVILLE - Less than two months into the season, Brian Leclerc's solid college baseball career at Florida was falling apart.

Early in the season, he had a four-game stretch in which he hit .600 and was named SEC player of the week on April 23. By March 3, he was hitting .043 spending as much time on the bench as in the lineup.

In the midst of the struggle, the former Northside Christian standout relied on his faith and talked regularly with his father, Keith, for encouragement.

"There came a moment when I said, 'Am I going to let this beat me or am I going to get through it?' " Leclerc said this week.

A two-hour conversation with his best friend and former Northside teammate, Mets Triple-A affiliate player Lastings Milledge, helped him answer that question.

"He told me some things I didn't want to hear, but needed to hear, " Leclerc said. "He said that you can't point the finger at other people when you're going through something even though you might think they are wrong because that's going to get you nowhere. If you sit there and say it's this person's fault, what's that going to accomplish? Nothing. ... I have to do something to make people notice when I get in the lineup."

The SEC is noticing.

Leclerc is hitting .383 in the past 38 league games, and .333 overall, second only to teammate Matt LaPorta.

"That's the old Brian out there now, " said LaPorta, who is also Leclerc's roommate. "He's getting opportunities and he's more focused in there. He's become a great hitter now."

Despite suffering from severe back spasms last weekend, Leclerc was instrumental in the Gators' victory over LSU in the first of a three-game series.

"There wasn't anything that was going to keep me out of the lineup, at all, " Leclerc said.

Florida coach Pat McMahon watched Leclerc have an outstanding fall, working extra hard on improving his defensive skills and taking a more prominent leadership role.

But McMahon said Leclerc began to struggle, "trying to do more than he was capable of doing." So he replaced him with young players.

Then he watched to see how Leclerc would respond.

"There were two ways that can be handled, particularly a senior, " McMahon said. "It could have been a lot of negative problems. But not Brian Leclerc. He worked harder in the cages, he took extra batting practice. He watched tape. When he wasn't playing, he was helping and encouraging his teammates. When he got back in the lineup, he took advantage of that to the fullest. ... He has earned the right to play and I'm very proud of that for Brian."

On Tuesday afternoon, Leclerc sat inside the Florida first base dugout and reflected on this season and the life lessons that keep coming his way. The Gators were preparing for their final regular season series, which begins tonight against arch-rival Tennessee. Florida, fifth in the SEC, needs two wins to secure a berth in the conference tournament.

But Leclerc's thoughts were with his girlfriend, UF cheerleader Veena Shrestha, whose mother, Chew-ing, died that morning from Huntingson's disease.

"It just kind of gives me a better outlook on life, " he said. "Every day I'm out here is a gift. It's not something that I should be taking for granted. So this weekend I'm going to try to do something in memory of her, and not just something on my wrist but with my play. ...

"There are obviously more important things. It's a blast out here and we have fun, but sometimes we take it too seriously. It's still a game."

One Leclerc is playing very well these days.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.