SOFTBALL: Baldwin Emerges As Leader For 11-1 Gator

When the number 14-ranked Florida Gators softball team hits Las Vegas this weekend for the UNLV Tournament, the allure of the Vegas Strip and Caesar's Palace distract them from a bigger jackpot.

The Gators have tournament title aspirations and hopes to start another big winning streak. Florida won its first 11 games of the season before losing in the finals of the GRU Classic Sunday. To win the UNLV Tournament, the Gators will have to go through the nation's top ranked team, the California Golden Bears.

In games of such high importance it is imperative for cooler heads to prevail and for experienced team leaders to step up. The Gators boast only four seniors on the 2005 roster, and one of them, starting outfielder Nikki Baldwin, is anxiously awaiting her shot.

"I'm really excited and the team can't wait to play California," Baldwin said. "They are the top team in the country so we want to go out, let it all hang out and have a good time out there."

Leadership has proven to be an integral part of a young Florida team that finds its strength in team speed and pitching. As one of the lone seniors, Baldwin has emerged into one of the team leaders.

"I enjoy being a leader and try to lead by example for the other girls," Baldwin said. "I'm not much of a vocal person, but I try to get through to the others with my play."

A Homestead, Florida native, Baldwin is back in the outfield mix after a down year last year. Primarily a pinch runner in 2004, she stole seven bases. In her previous two years on the team, Baldwin started 80 games, totaling a combined 42 hits in her freshman and sophomore campaigns.

While most athletes get involved with their sport through parental pressure or the guidance of a coach, Baldwin's brother Clifton was her inspiration. He was a baseball player which led her to softball.

"When I was about nine years old he played in a league in South Florida and I saw some girls playing and that's what got me hooked," she said. "I was hooked from then on and once I started traveling, I got real competitive with it."

During her four years at South Dade High School, she was elected team MVP each year and it was on her recruiting trip to Gainesville that she decided on the orange and blue.

"I was impressed with everything on my visit as the girls were nice, the coaches were great and the facilities were awesome," Baldwin said. "I just knew I wanted to be a Gator."

Despite getting off to a slow start this year with a shoulder injury, Baldwin is ready to make her contributions to the team. She's got high hopes for this season.

"We've got the best unity that I've seen since I've been here and we try to have fun and stay consistent," Baldwin said. "It's all about enjoying the game."

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