U.S. softball team barnstorming to hopeful repeat

Heavy Olympic favorite is built on work ethic


August 06, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Every body-pounding practice, every mind-numbing road trip, every slide into second that scours away exposed flesh is just part of the game plan for the U.S. Olympic softball team.

"We're putting hay in the barn," says outfielder Laura Berg, borrowing the mantra of fellow two-time gold medalist Lisa Fernandez. "When we really have to dig deep in Athens, we'll have all of this to draw on."

Says Fernandez: "No one is going to roll over and hand us the gold medal. We're going to have to earn anything we get."

Their comments bring a smile to the face of coach Mike Candrea, who took a leave of absence from the University of Arizona to mold this team to his take-no-prisoners strategy of power, speed and defense.

All spring and summer, Candrea told the 18 women - 15 regulars and three alternates - that if they adhered to his grueling conditioning schedule, they would have only one thing to worry about beginning Aug. 14: the game scheduled that day.

"It's a game of monotonous repetition," he says of practices. "But our expectations are very high, and there are no shortcuts to where we want to go."

Given the outcome so far, it's hard to argue with the philosophy.

The women left for Athens a week ago, having compiled a record of 53-0 in a barnstorming tour of 22 cities and games against top collegiate teams. The national team outscored the opposition, 476-14.

U.S. softball, ranked No. 1 for 18 years, is expected to take the Olympic gold medal for the third consecutive time. The team has four players with two gold medals and two others with one.

But the 2000 team also entered the Olympics with an air of invincibility and almost didn't survive the preliminary round. Dot Richardson, who helped lead the 1996 and 2000 teams, warns against complacency this time.

"Don't get too confident with those 20-0 and 18-2 games. The college teams were somewhat intimidated," says Richardson, who will be providing color commentary for NBC in Athens. "We've gotten better, but so has the rest of the world."

However, the 2004 squad has several pieces that were lacking in the 2000 model. Shortstop Natasha Watley has roadrunner-like speed, blazing from home to first base in 2.5 seconds and stretching singles into doubles and triples. In Tairia Mims Flowers, who plays first and third and catches, the team has added versatility, leading Candrea to call her "our Swiss Army knife."

"We're not going to sit around, waiting for the three-run home run like we did in 2000," says Berg.

But the most dramatic addition both athletically and aesthetically stands in the circle in the middle of the infield.

With a 70 mph delivery, pitcher Jennie Finch twists batters. Blonde, 6 feet 1, and voted one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People of 2004," Finch turns heads.

So many people want to talk to her - from network news shows to Vanity Fair magazine - that USA Softball assigned someone just to handle the requests.

Finch, 23, isn't just another pretty face. She won 60 consecutive games at the University of Arizona, an NCAA record, and led her team to the collegiate title in 2001. She won gold medals at the 2002 World Championships and the 2003 Pan American Games.

Her teammates don't begrudge her a second of the attention.

"What Jennie has done for the sport is awesome," says Berg. "Little girls, instead of looking up to Derek Jeter, look up to her. She's a great ballplayer. She works her rear end off. She deserves all of it."

After games, when they sign autographs, Finch's line is three times that of her teammates. She has already mastered the way famous people sign, conduct interviews and pose for pictures with fans at the same time.

Yet, say her teammates, she never forgets them. When a television appearance requires Finch to have a catcher, she brings a different one along each time so they get some "face time," too. She is a prodigious e-mailer of thank you notes, to people who shuttle her to appearances, bring her coffee, make sure her luggage gets to the right place.

Finch seems uncomfortable with the attention. "I'm an athlete first. That's what all the seven and eight hours of hard work every day is all about," she says. "This `sexy' thing is too much, it's distracting."

Richardson expects that once play begins, the focus will switch from Finch to Fernandez, 33, the emotional center of the team, its best pitcher and the backup third baseman with a .300 batting average.

"Jennie is a great person and a tremendous athlete, but when the game is on the line, it's going to be Lisa Fernandez on the mound," says Richardson. "She can carry the team, if she needs to."

Fernandez smiles when told of Richardson's comment.

"It's true. I enjoy the pressure. I enjoy adversity. I look at it as a no-lose situation," she says. "I like to call myself a safety net. I'll be there to find a way."

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