Monday, Jul 21, 2014
Central High School

Ex-Bear Burns sets St. Leo steals record


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A former Central High multi-sport standout is excelling on the diamond for nearby Division II St. Leo University.

For a fast-pitch softball program dating back to 1985, the school record for career stolen bases was 87 - held by Denyve Duncan (2002-05).

The 5-foot-3, 118-pound McKenzie Burns entered Tuesday's doubleheader against New York's Mercy College tied with Duncan, having done so in 103 attempts for an exceptional .845 percentage.

She set a new mark with a steal in Tuesday's second game, and added another on Wednesday, giving her 89 heading into this weekend's action.

Burns' return to the playing field has been nothing short of extraordinary.

The younger of two daughters to Brooksville's Ray and Sonya Burns, she has made an incredible full-circle recovery since her senior year at CHS.

In 2010-11, Burns was the point guard for the terrific Lady Bears basketball team under skipper Penny Gresick. But four days prior to the district tournament arrived a twist of fate.

The lightning-quick Burns suffered a season-ending ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury in her right knee during the first quarter of her Senior Night game against visiting Hudson.

Her loss crippled CHS on the hardwood courts. As a result, the Lady Bears barely squeezed past Springstead in the quarterfinals, before losing by double digits in the semifinals.

Not only had CHS lost its point guard, but due to the severity of the injury, Burns' shot at assisting her tennis coaching mother was shelved.

Most importantly, her fourth and final varsity softball season was spent coaching up first base for the Lady Bears under Tyson Ellis.

For a team lacking its offensive rudder, Ellis no longer had his everyday shortstop and backup pitcher, who had collected 109 hits in 232 prep at-bats for an outstanding .470 batting average.

Burns was not only a three-time All-County pick, she was the county's defending 2010 Player of the Year.

Due to the injury, Burns was damaged goods prior to enrolling at St. Leo.

"When I was a freshman, it was real scary," recalled the now 20-year-old Burns. "I hadn't played in a year and I'll admit I was holding back a lot. The doctors explained that the knee was fine - even better than it was before - but I wondered if it would hold up."

Upon joining her new team, Burns' biggest adjustment was "to the speed of the game." She realized, "I had a lot of catching up to do."

One significant modification was Burns' switch to being a completely left-handed batter.

At CHS, she primarily hit from the right side and sprinkled in some at-bats from the left. According to Burns, hitting from the left side was a no-brainer. She agreed with head coach John Conway that with her deft speed, she was a step closer to first base.

Her job at St. Leo was simple: to get on base any way she could, disrupt the pitcher and set the table for the meat of the lineup.

Defensively, Burns opened the season in center field - somewhere she had never played in high school - and then got switched to shortstop.

"I'll admit I was scared out of my mind," she said. "We had a bunch of seniors that were telling me what to do and I didn't want to mess up. I was fortunate that our catcher had a gun and nobody wanted to run on her. Our starting shortstop shifted to second, but she really helped me.

"In high school, we had maybe 1-2 plays that we executed defensively," noted Burns on the switch to shortstop. "Now, we run 5-6 plays and it all changes depending on the whether it's a right-handed or left-handed batter."

Offensively, Burns began her collegiate career on a tentative path.

"I started out slowly," recalled Burns. "I knew I had to adjust to this level of play. I remember thinking back to my last year of high school ball, I never struck out. Then I got here and I wasn't getting good cuts. The knee felt sore and I'll admit I was timid. But I realized I had to get my timing back."

Though the Lady Lions concluded Burns' first year at 22-32, she settled down for a .292 batting average. As the team's leadoff batter, Burns also stole 20-of-25 bases.

As a sophomore in 2013, defensively Burns mostly anchored center field.

Coach Conway believed Burns' speed would allow her to cover more territory.

"Playing center field full-time was different," explained Burns. "I never played in the outfield in high school. I don't have the strongest arm. My main job is to get to the ball and hit my cutoffs. One thing I learned really quickly, it sucks if I miss a ball out there - 'cause I don't have a backup."

Behind a strengthening knee, Burns' team improved in the standings as the Lady Lions captured their first-ever Sunshine State Conference title.

In a year's time, St. Leo climbed to 40-16 overall, including a 20-4 won-lost slate in SSC action.

Between the lines, Burns felt more at ease at the plate, hitting .329 and nearly doubling her runs scored from 27 to 50.

On the base paths, she terrorized opposing pitchers and catchers to the tune of 54-of-61 on stolen base attempts. She was so prolific she received the NCAA's prestigious D-II "Golden Shoe" award for most stolen bases in a season.

Other postseason accolades included being named First Team All-SSC and National Fastpitch Coaches Association Second Team All-Region as an outfielder

Burns is currently Coach Conway's team captain. The Lady Lions are currently 17-11.

"Our relationship has always been good," detailed Burns. "The girls (on the team) always come to me with whatever is troubling them. If they want me to ask coach about something I will. Ultimately, it's coach's decision on what happens with all the players."

Though Burns was switched to left field, mentally and physically she's in a good place.

"We haven't played many conference games, but to open the season we were ranked second. Last year we were ranked ninth," admitted Burns. "This is D-II and there's no doubt this is the toughest conference in the country. UT (University of Tampa), Rollins, Barry, Florida Southern - they all bring it; no one here settles on one game or one series."

In adjusting to college, Burns doesn't commute from her Brooksville digs. Instead, she lives on campus.

"I absolutely love it here," said Burns. "If I ever have any free time, I'll go to the beach with my friends or relax by the pool."

On matriculating to St. Leo, "I definitely don't have any regrets," said Burns. "I feel like I'm here for a reason. I've been fortunate to be successful."

Burns, who carried a 3.7 grade point average at mid-terms, is a psychology major, who may concentrate on the counseling portion of her craft when she graduates in May 2015.

Setting records isn't what Burns set out to do when she enrolled at St. Leo, but rather it was returning to a sense of normalcy.

"It was cool to receive a national award - the Golden Shoe - that doesn't happen every day," pointed out Burns. "But to me, breaking school record leaves a larger legacy."

By the numbers: St. Leo University's McKenzie Burns (thru 03-13-14)

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO

YR GP AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI .AVG SBA SB .PCT

2012 48 130 27 38 0 0 0 06 .292 25 20 .800

2013 53 164 50 54 2 0 0 10 .329 61 54 .885

2014 28 89 23 27 3 0 0 05 .303 19 15 .789

TOTALS 129 383 100 119 5 0 0 21 .311 105 89 .848

By the numbers; Central's McKenzie Burns (2008-11)

- Compiled by TONY CASTRO

YEAR GP AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI .AVG

2008* 20 79 17 30 2 0 0 10 .380

2009* 25 84 27 41 2 1 0 08 .488

2010*$ 20 69 21 38 1 1 0 11 .551

2011 INJ/DNP

TOTALS 65 232 65 109 5 2 0 29 .470

* Denotes All-County selection.

$ Denotes Hernando Today Player of the Year.

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