Most observers concede that Anne Arundel County has the best high-school age softball teams in the state, perhaps the East Coast.
But when East meets West in softball, East usually comes home a loser.
"California teams play year 'round -- they're just so far ahead of us," said second baseman Nicole Dunleavy, of the East Regional champion Jade Garden Bandits.
The Amateur Softball Association Junior Olympic Women's Under-18 National Championships begin Wednesday, withthe championship game scheduled Saturday.
The defending champion,Gordon's Panthers of LaPalma, Calif., will be putting its title on the line in the double-elimination tournament.
For the first time, the four-day, 64-team tournament will come east of the Mississippi, bringing teams from 35 states to the fields of Columbia's Cedar Lane Park and Centennial Park.
College scouts and Olympic committee representatives are expected to be on hand, looking for prospects for thesummer games in 1996.
In addition to Jade Garden, Maryland will be represented by Wagner's, the two-time state champion, Tangerine Machine and the Lewistown Tigers of Frederick.
Two more local teams -- regional champion Chesapeake Chargers and state champion Riviera Beach I -- are leaving today for the ASA's under-16 national tournamentin Chattanooga, Tenn.
Charger's coach Larry Alvis, whose squad dropped a best of three series with Riviera Beach I for the state title, feels his squad is well-prepared for the 56-team tournament.
"Last year, as a 14-and-under team, we won the state and regional titles," said Alvis, whose Chargers (34-12) lost the first two games last summer. "We're proud of our record and I think our experience from last year will help us."
Experience was the one thing Bandits coach Ron Shelhouse didn't have on his roster when he began the season without his two best pitchers -- Kim Sheridan went to Wagner's and Kristy Zulka was out with a knee injury.
"I thought that would devastate us, but Kerri Endler is a finesse pitcher and she has really been a workhorse," said Shelhouse, whose Bandits (25-12) have beaten Wagner'sthree times this season.
"With my other pitcher, Jennifer Schmittle, having tendinitis problems in her throwing arm, we made a decision to go 100 percent with Kerri. She's got about a 1.6 or 2.0 ERA and she's really come out hard for us."
A highlight of Endler's 12-6 record is a 1-0 victory over Wagner's in the regional tournament. The 17-year-old, who had three of her team's four victories for the regional title, said she's found her motivation.
"I've been scared for most of the games. In the regionals, I thought we had the worst draw of the universe," said Endler. "I am getting past the point where I'mthinking it's (success) all an accident, but I'm always nervous.
"I have an incredible defense behind me. Our defense fields balls that seem impossible to get to. I'll see a ball come off of the bat and think it's a hit, then they get them."
Endler, who turned down a softball scholarship to Drexel University to attend Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, Va., can include Dunleavy among the Bandits'defensive wizards. Dunleavy is fielding at a .930 percent clip -- second only to third baseman Jennifer Kisiner (.950) -- and hitting .336 with 18 RBI.
Right next to Dunleavy is shortstop Shani Cannon (.925), who leads the team in both hitting (.411) and RBI (20).
Whenshe's not pitching, Schmittle plays left field and hits .343 with 15RBI. First baseman Chris Reddis (.316, 12 RBI), catcher Nicole Meister (.287, 10 RBI) and Kisiner (.275, 10 RBI) also contribute.
Among the most experienced players in the 18-and-under category, Dunleavyhas twice gone to the nationals: in Missouri in 1985 as a member of Riviera Beach's 10-12 team and two years later to Colorado. The 10-12team finished 13th nationally.
But even the veterans can doubt the chances of a fledgling squad.
"Coming into the season, a lot us thought the team was going downhill, but after we beat Wagner's in the regionals, everyone started coming together," said Dunleavy, who isheaded for the University of California (Pa.) on a partial athletic scholarship. "Most of the younger players were willing to listen and there was a 100-percent turnaround."
The Chargers foundation lies in pitcher/shortstops Jamie Long (2.64 ERA) and Rachel Synowski (2.4).
"I think Rachel's the faster one between us," said Long, 15. "But our (contrasting) styles throw the batters off a little bit."
Long is batting .342 and her 30 RBI ranks second behind first baseman Amy Pavloski (.359, 31 RBI). Synowski is batting .357 with 25 RBI.
Catcher/designated hitter Heather Daffin (.373, 25 RBI), center fielder Michelle Manner (.390) and third baseman Cindy Parulis (.361) can also slug. The team's vocal and emotional leader is catcher Lori Lynch.
Long and Lynch, both members of last year's squad, are making the trip to the nationals for the third straight summer.