Wednesday was the equivalent of Christmas for junior college softball teams.

The first national poll was due from the National Junior College Athletic Association. Like many of his fellow head coaches, North Florida Community College's Joe Morabito looked under the Christmas tree (er, on the NJCAA's web site) for his present.

Merry Christmas, Joe.

"I expected to be in the top five," said Morabito. But when the NJCAA's fast-pitch softball page loaded on his computer, "my jaw hit the desk."

For on the top of the national poll list, there they were. No. 1 in the country, North Florida Community College.

It's the first time the Madison, Fla., school has had any sports team ranked No. 1 in the nation, Morabito said.

"If you had asked me in the fall about being ranked, I'd said no way," said Morabito, in his first year as the Lady Sentinels' head coach after being an assistant the last three seasons.

Why now? "It's the chemistry and heart of this ball club," Morabito said. "We're not the most talented team. But they have heart and desire. They refuse to lose."

North Florida is 36-3 overall this season, 4-2 in the tough six-team Panhandle Conference. The Lady Sentinels began the season with a school-record 26 wins, smashing the old mark of 18 set two years ago.

The three losses have been by one run each game, including two 1-0 games.

Last year's team finished eighth nationally after winning the state tournament. That team won a school-record 41 games.

The Lady Sentinels had some holes to fill after last season, especially on the mound. NFCC has three new pitchers, left by sophomore Randi Rainwater and freshman Kylie Berryman.

Rainwater is 19-2 (plus three saves) with an 0.47 ERA, one of the nation's best marks. She's had seven shutouts, and allowed just nine earned runs in 134 innings. She's struck out 111, and walked just 33.

Berryman adds a 12-1 record with a 1.49 ERA. She's struck out 67 in 89 innings.

At the plate, one of the team's returnees, sophomore second baseman Jenny Baaske, leads the team with a .445 batting average. She has a team-high 39 runs, 12 doubles and three triples, and has driven in 33 runs.

Freshman third baseman Jackie Bates is the big power hitter, with team hits in home runs (eight) and RBI (37). She's hitting .414 with eight doubles.

Other top hitters include freshman centerfielder Erin Brown (.417, 25 runs), sophomore first baseman Laura Perry (.361, 25 RBI) and sophomore rightfielder Ashley Smith (.327, 30 runs), a Madison native.

"Once we started winning, it's been a big snowball effect," said Morabito. "Our kids have that attitude. Other teams have been intimidated, felt beaten when they got off the bus."

Now Morabito doesn't want the national ranking to work against his team.

"I don't want them to get a big head about this. Being No. 1 is just somebody's opinion," Morabito said. "If we can weather the storm, I think we can be OK."

The first storm clouds will gather Saturday, when national No. 7 Florida Gulf Coast comes to Madison for an afternoon doubleheader. It's FGC which, at 5-1, has the early lead in the Panhandle Conference, a game ahead of NFCC.

"I'm hoping Saturday will be a huge day on campus," Morabito said. "Our conference schedule is tough. Four of the six are ranked in the state, so it's a battle. If you can get 15 wins out of this conference, you're going to win."

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