`Mighty mite' stands tall on softball field

Pitcher: Lauren Gibson, 8, doesn't let her diminutive size prevent her from dominating opposing batters. The third-grader carries a national reputation in the fast-growing sport of girls' fast-pitch softball.

June 12, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The windup is a windmill, the delivery a wicked fastball, thrown with a loud and startling "ugghhh" by a pitcher with a mask on her face and a pad strapped to her chest.

The batter freezes. The umpire calls "strike three." And Lauren Gibson, a dominating pitcher for the dominant team at yesterday's Maryland fast-pitch softball tournament, records another strikeout.

Not bad for an 8-year-old who's barely 4 feet tall and weighs maybe 50 pounds - if you weigh her while she's wearing softball cleats.

"It's funny watching the reactions to her," said Lauren's mother, Lorrie Gibson. "They're like, `She's so cute' until the first ball is thrown. Then it's not so funny anymore."

Lauren Gibson is one of a growing number of girls who, having been introduced to the sport as preschoolers, spend almost every warm weekend playing a circuit of tournaments. At an age when many of her schoolmates aren't far removed from the T-ball clinic, the third-grader carries a national reputation in the fast-growing sport of girls' fast-pitch softball.

Yesterday, as the sun cooked the players and their fans, Lauren and her teammates from northern Anne Arundel County's Lake Shore Lightning pitched and slugged their way to a title in the 10-and-under division at the National Softball Association's biggest-ever Maryland championship tournament.

On the one hand, Lauren Gibson is distinctive, a diminutive girl who nevertheless struck out players more than three years older last year at the youth softball World Series in North Carolina.

"There's probably no one in her class at her age," said Hugh Cantrell, chief executive officer of the National Softball Association.

Jim Rhinehart, a longtime pitching instructor who has tutored Lauren, said, "You compare her to some college pitchers in Division I, and her mechanics are better than theirs."

On the other hand, she's like many other girls who, inspired by the prospect of Olympic gold and the lure of college scholarships, are immersing themselves in unabashedly competitive fast-pitch softball. They practice year-round and, when the weather warms up, travel to the tournaments with parents in tow.

"I know there are a lot of things I could be doing at my house," said DiannaNescio, who has spent every weekend this spring cheering on her three fast-pitch-playing daughters. "I could be cleaning it better. But it's going to be there when they're gone. That's the way I look at it."

Another parent, Bill Hickman, said he bought a boat four years ago, just when his two daughters became interested in softball.

"We live 150 feet from the water, and we've only been on it about 10 times," he said.

Hickman was among the hundreds of parents who assembled yesterday at Howard County's Rockburn Branch Park. Some retreated under umbrellas, canopies and trees to shade themselves from a sizzling sun. Others, undaunted, pressed against the backstop and cheered on their youngsters.

About 90 teams, with girls up to age 18, competed in this year's state tournament. It was played at four sites in Howard and Prince George's counties, and was organized by the National Softball Association, one of the sport's two major sanctioning bodies.

The weekend's turnout was a far cry from that at the organization's first tournament in 1985, which drew five teams in one age division. By the mid-1990s, the number of teams playing in tournaments was barely half what it is today, said tournament director Bill Dowell.

This year, teams such as the Maryland Magic, the Lady Orioles, the Harford Stars and the Maryland Chill battled for the 10-and-under title.

"Maryland probably ranks in the top 10 of hot beds for fast pitch," Cantrell said. "We have some great teams coming out of Maryland."

One of those teams is the Lake Shore Lightning, which has lost two of the more than 40 games it has played this year. Hailing from the sport's Maryland epicenter in northern Anne Arundel County and decked out in teal and orange, the Lightning stormed through the tournament with four straight wins.

It was a festive gathering. The girls urged their teammates on with chants such as the one for a hitter who draws a walk: "Good eye, good eye, G-O-O-D E-Y-E, good eye."

Between games, opposing players mingle and share picnic lunches with their parents. Souvenirs are for sale, including a video titled "Softball Nation's Fast-Pitch Fever" and a T-shirt that says, "NSA Softball, Down & Dirty - It's not your mama's game."

Lauren's mother, Lorrie Gibson, pitched for three years for the varsity softball team at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena. Her elder daughter, Danielle, 14, pitched until she hurt her arm a couple of years ago and is now a catcher.

A few years ago, Lauren started going to Danielle's Lake Shore Lightning games. By age 4. Lauren was the team's bat girl. By age 7, coached by her mother and her father, Steve, she outgrew T-ball and the clinic where coaches pitch to the girls.

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