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Archive for August, 2011

So long Sulphur

McMurry Park in Sulphur, La.

Wrapping up the NPF playoffs:

Lauren Lappin and Megan Willis reflect on playing in Japan in and around the devastating earthquake/tsunami.

Stacy May-Johnson takes (at least) one more turn at bat in NPF.

Life on the road suits NPF Diamonds.

Alisa Goler plays beyond her years in opening win for Bandits.

Monica Abbott is getting more impossible to beat. And yes, I said more impossible.

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From the road …

Best. Pregame. Meal. Ever. Homemade crawfish stew at the NPF championship series.

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SULPHUR, La. — This is the right part of the world to visit if you want to eat well. It’s also the right place to be if you want to experience the essence of rivalry.

And while, sure, the end of crawfish season puts a damper on the former, the sight of Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott peering in from the pitching circle means the latter isn’t waiting for football season to peak.

USSSA Pride pitcher Cat Osterman

With apologies to Japanese ace Yukiko Ueno, no two women on the planet throw a softball better at this particular point in time than the USSSA Pride’s Osterman and the Chicago Bandits’ Abbott. Which makes it all the more intriguing to know with certainty that one of them is going to lose before the end of the weekend.

For the second season in a row, the Pride and Bandits will play for the NPF championship, with the best-of-three final series getting underway tonight at McMurry Park. A year ago, Osterman bested Jennie Finch and cemented her status as the closest thing the icon had to an heir apparent as the face of softball. But as good as Finch still was at the time of her retirement, including a gem for the Bandits in that series that forced a decisive third game, the more compelling contest for on-field dominance in recent years has been between Osterman and Abbott.

In 2007, Abbott punctuated her rookie season by leading the Washington Glory to a title against Osterman’s Thunder. Two years later, still with the Thunder, Osterman returned the favor by beating the Pride, then featuring Abbott in the circle, twice in one day to clinch a championship. Their first meeting this season, back in June, went 10 innings back, with both pitchers going the distance in a 3-2 win for Osterman and the Pride.

They bring out the best in each other, which is a little frightening considering what the league’s co-pitchers of the year do the rest of the time.

No wonder the Bandits had a simple rallying cry as Friday’s semifinal against the Akron Racers dragged into Saturday morning and Abbott’s pitch count mounted after she came on in relief of Nikki Nemitz. A loss would have meant a winner-take-all game Saturday morning to even have a chance to face the Pride in the finals.

As coach Darrick Brown explained, “A lot of the girls were saying, ‘Let’s win it this inning for Monica’s left arm.’”

Nemitz obliged with a walk-off three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth.

Of course, with Osterman and Abbott on the marquee, the rest of the rosters are more than merely supporting characters.

For one thing, the Pride don’t need to rely on Osterman in the circle if things go awry or they want a different look. You wouldn’t get very far on the aforementioned list of the best pitchers in the world before coming to Pride No. 2 Danielle Lawrie. Veteran Sarah Pauly added to a long and successful postseason resume by nearly no-hitting the NPF Diamonds on Friday. And despite a rough relief stint in an earlier game Friday, Jordan Taylor helped Team USA win the World Cup of Softball in July and can hold her own in any setting.

USSSA Pride OF Caitlin Lowe

It’s that sort of embarrassment of riches that defines the Pride as the FC Barcelona of professional softball. At any given time, the lineup likely contains seven former Olympians, including the world’s best hitter in Jessica Mendoza and it’s most dangerous top of the order in Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe. And that’s without mentioning the Olympians coming off the bench, like Jenn Salling, or the non-Olympians good enough to crack coach Tim Walton’s lineup card, like first baseman Charlotte Morgan and outfielder Francesca Enea.

Pep Guardiola should be so lucky.

The only thing bigger than the team’s star power is the target on their collective back.

“I think that coming out, you’re going to be rivals with them,” Bandits shortstop Tammy Williams said. “They’ve been the team to beat, and you want to play them in that final round and prove that you’re the best.”

The Bandits weren’t the second-best team in the league in the regular season, and it’s worth pausing for a second to note the success the Racers enjoyed this season before falling in the semifinals. Coach Jake Schumann said after those losses that it was the group that most embodied team during his 12 years of coaching. To their credit, the Racers may have been more than the sum of their parts, grinding through the regular season and coming up with two more wins than the team from Chicago.

But if we’re talking parts, the Bandits are easily the most compelling foil for the Pride for reasons that go well beyond Abbott. It oversimplifies things to say the Pride are the team that assembled prefabricated stars, while the Bandits are the team that benefitted most from the opportunities a pro league offers to develop stars. But there’s at least a grain of truth there. In Williams, a standout at Northwestern who has blossomed into an international-caliber star since finishing school, the versatile Nemitz and even rookies like Alisa Goler and Megan Wiggins, the Bandits are loaded with players in need only of name recognition to qualify as stars.

That’s a list headlined by Stacy May-Johnson, the two-time NPF MVP who came out of retirement (and national team duty) to rejoin the Bandits for the stretch drive.

“She’s obviously a big plus because you’re never going to have a bad at-bat with Stacy,” Brown sad. “She’s going to go up and battle. She’s going to compete, and you’ve got to have someone like that after your best hitter, your hottest hitter. Goler bats in the three-spot, so you’ve got to have somebody in that four-spot.”

It’s the championship series. And the qualifications of the other aspirants notwithstanding, it’s the championship series the league needed, even if it couldn’t be said.

“I don’t think it really changes our preparation,” Walton said of the alternatives before an opponent had been determined. “It won’t change who we pitch. It won’t change who we bat. It will all be the same.”

But in its own way, that’s the essence of a rivalry. Take two teams that know each other well and see if their best can beat your best. It just happens this one also comes with the two best pitchers in the world.

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