The intensity of Lauren Gibson and Kourtney Salvarola is apparent whenever they step onto the field. It's on display whether they're pitching, hitting or taking an extra base.
One time last season, however, the longtime friends and current rivals couldn't help but let their guards down. Having moved up the club ranks, mostly as teammates, since playing for the Lake Shore Lightning under-10 team, Gibson now wears Chesapeake-AA blue and Salvarola sports Broadneck maroon.
It was the first time they'd faced each other in high school.
"[Before the game], as we were walking up to home plate to meet with the umpires to go over the ground rules and stuff, I looked at her and smiled. It was just really different," Salvarola, a sophomore, said of her and Gibson pitching against each other.
Gibson, a junior, smiled back. But soon after - and ever since - it has been all about the game.
The pitching rivalry continues today when the No. 1 Cougars (18-1) take on the No. 3 Bruins (15-3) for the Anne Arundel County championship at 5 p.m. at Bachman Sports Complex in Glen Burnie. The teams likely will meet again in the regional playoffs, with the survivor then primed for a state title.
Gibson and Salvarola engaged in three 2-1 games last season. Salvarola and the Bruins claimed the regular-season game and made it two in a row in the county title meeting before Gibson and the Cougars had the final say with a win in the Class 4A East regional title game on their way to the state crown.
Again this year, Broadneck made a regular-season statement with a 2-0 victory.
"Neither of us will be pitching in college, so this is a fun little battle we have going - seeing who can do better pitching in high school," said Salvarola, 16, who has made an oral commitment to the University of South Florida.
"I'm a very competitive person and I hate losing, and I know Lauren hates losing, too," added Salvarola, who said she and Gibson exchanged text messages wishing each other luck the night before their first meeting.
"That's always a good thing when we're playing on the same team, but when we're playing against each other, that's always tough because we both want to win so bad and only one can."
Gibson and Salvarola bring impressive resumes to the field today. Both play for Wagner's under-18 team in club ball (Kourtney's stepfather, Reese Kiple, and Gibson's father, Steve, coach the team), and they also played two seasons for Team New Jersey, the East Coast's premier travel team.
The Tennessee-bound Gibson is a two-time All-Metro first-team selection who was named All-Metro Player of the Year last year after capping her sophomore season with a no-hitter in a 2-0 win over Damascus in the state final.
This season, she's batting .500 with 29 runs, 26 RBIs, eight home runs and 10 stolen bases. She's 12-1 with an 0.71 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 79 innings.
Last season, the addition of Salvarola took Broadneck's program to a higher level, and it has stayed that way this spring. The first-team All-Metro standout is hitting .543 with 32 runs, 19 RBIs, six homers and eight steals, while going 8-2 with a 1.14 ERA and 83 strikeouts.
Softball-rich Anne Arundel County has had plenty of pitching rivalries through the years, but Gibson and Salvarola may trump all the others because of all the other things they can do on the field. The fact that they have been teammates on travel teams adds to the intrigue.
"In high school ball, for sure everything is always a comparison. The kids always want to get the recognition and stuff like that," Chesapeake coach Don Ellenberger said. "And when you're up against the best of the best, you're the one who wants to come out on top in the end.
"If Kourtney is on a hot streak, Lauren, I'm positive, is going to want to try to better it. So when these two get together, I think that's the main reason why it's been 2-1, 2-0 games."
As teammates and opponents, the two agree they have helped each other improve their play.
"Everyone wants to be the best they can be, and I know that Kourtney constantly pushes me to be better and I push her," said Gibson, 16. "On Team New Jersey, we always had this thing that when I got a double, she got a double, or whenever I got a triple, she would follow with a triple. So whenever I got up, she was always like: `Please get a good hit so I can get a good hit!' "
Both players had early starts in softball. When Gibson was 4, she was a batgirl for her older sister Danielle's Lightning team. Salvarola grew up watching her mother, Karen, and stepfather play in adult leagues.
"I think they both strive to be the best that they can be without a lot of push," Steve Gibson said. "I think deep down inside neither wants the other one to have a leg up. That's been a great thing because it makes them both better."
Last year, the Bruins claimed their first county title when Salvarola reached on an error in the sixth inning and scored on a double by senior Kayla Dice.
In the regional final, Chesapeake senior Brooke Owen hit a sharp grounder between a diving third baseman and shortstop to bring in the game's winning run in the bottom of the seventh. Gibson walked twice, singled and scored the Cougars' first run. Salvarola was pitched around, walking all four times she went to the plate.
Both pitchers have strong supporting casts, with shortstop Ashley Thomas and outfielder Corie Sietler both hitting over .400 for the Bruins, and second baseman Kelly Hickman and outfielder Erika Stach doing the same for the Cougars.
Both pitchers are ready for the next chapter today.
"It starts all over again," Salvarola said. "You have to take it pitch by pitch. It's definitely nerve-racking."