National Pro Fastpitch Roundup Pride Aligns All-Star Talent Across the Board
By Dave Utnik
ORLANDO, FLORIDA—One former Olympian was followed by another. USSSA Pride owner and general manager Don DeDonatis kept searching until he’d found one of the best players in the world to fill every position on the softball diamond.
He signed Natasha Watley to play shortstop, Andrea Duran to play third and Lauren Lappin to catch. Jessica Mendoza was added to an outfield that already included Kelly Kretschman and Caitlin Lowe.
It took DeDonatis five months to assemble a team he believes will be unrivaled at the professional level, essentially performing an extreme makeover on a franchise that has reached the Cowles Cup championship series in every season since the organization made it debut as the Washington Glory in 2007.
On draft day, DeDonatis struck a deal with the Chicago Bandits to acquire former all-star and National Pro Fastpitch MVP Nicole Trimboli, but he wasn’t finished yet.
His biggest, and boldest, off season move came on May 4, when he traded ace pitcher Monica Abbott and catcher Shannon Doepking to the expansion Tennessee Diamonds for reigning league MVP Cat Osterman and catcher Megan Willis.
Osterman, a two-time Olympic medal winner, and Willis have been battery mates since college, when they starred for the University of Texas.
The former Longhorns reunited in 2009 and led the Rockford Thunder to the NPF championship.
When the Orlando-based Pride opens the season with a game in Lubbock, Texas against the Bandits on June 9, the lineup will feature seven former Olympians and will be directed by one of the most successful collegiate coaches of all time: University of Florida legend Tim Walton, who has a 262-42 record with the Gators.
“The USSSA Pride has assembled a world class team over the last several months and there is no question that we need a world class coach to lead them this summer,” DeDonatis said. “Coach Walton exemplifies the way a professional team should be run.”
Walton has won nearly 400 career games, including three seasons at Wichita State, and has led Florida to five consecutive NCAA Tournaments.
The Gators reached the Women’s College World Series in 2008 and 2009 and broke 218 school records along the way.
After playing professional baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies minor league system, Walton began his coaching career as an assistant at Oklahoma in 1999 before guiding Wichita State to 123 wins in three seasons, including a 2005 NCAA regional berth.
Florida won 43 games in his first season and has taken off from there, winning a school-record 70 games and advancing to the Women’s College World Series semifinals in 2008, then reaching the championship series in 2009.
Last spring, the Gators earned the program’s first preseason No. 1 national ranking and went on to set a Southeastern Conference record with 86 home runs. Their .926 (63-5) winning percentage was the best in the country.
“I am grateful to Mr. Don DeDonatis for this opportunity,” Walton said. “I also want to thank UF Athletics Director Jeremy Foley for allowing me to be involved with the Pride this summer while also attending to my duties at Florida.”
The Gators will be represented on the field in Orlando as well with All-American outfielder Francesca Enea expected to join the team at the conclusion of the college season.
Enea, who owns seven school records, including single-season home runs (20), career home runs (61) and career RBI (220), was chosen in the third round of the draft.
The Pride selected Alabama’s Charlotte Morgan, the reigning SEC player of the year, with the first overall draft pick and Big East player of the year Melissa Roth, of Louisville, with their second-round pick.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Walton said. “Not only will I provide leadership, but I will get the chance to learn from some of the best softball players in the world.”
The Pride will play five exhibition games against the Venezuela National Team beginning May 31 and will begin their regular season home schedule against Abbott and the Tennessee Diamonds on June 25th.
“This is a tremendous honor to be on the same field as so many great players,” Walton said. “I am looking forward to it.”
Fresh and Veteran Talent Stack Bandits for 2010
By Dave Utnik
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—On the day that he signed Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch, Chicago Bandits owner Bill Sokolis knew that the he had the foundation for a championship franchise.
The Bandits were barely two months old on Dec. 23, 2004, when Finch agreed to become the franchise’s first ace pitcher.
And she instantly made them a winner with a 12-strikeout performance on Opening Day — a 6-2 victory over the Australian National Team that featured a historic first hit (by Anne Steffan) and first run (Laura Harms).
They went 41-7 that season and reached the National Pro Fastpitch championship game before losing to the Akron Racers, 5-4.
Even in defeat, a tradition was born.
Now in their sixth season, the Bandits are the league’s second-oldest franchise and still one of it’s most successful with a regular season title in 2009 and a Cowles Cup championship in 2008.
“This team has the ability to perform at an extremely high level,” said Bandits General Manager Aaron Moore. “The expectations of the Bandits every season is to compete for the Cowles Cup and this year will be no different.”
Finch remains the centerpiece of those expectations.
She is the reigning USA Softball Athlete of the Year and one of the game’s most popular players. Even Philadelphia loves her.
After throwing a perfect game, Force fans gave her a standing ovation.
Finch, who won a Women’s College World Series championship at Arizona and has pitched in two Olympic Games, gives the Bandits credibility as well as fame.
Every time she steps into the circle, Chicago has a chance to win. And when she’s not, the Bandits are still going to be tough to beat.
Even after dealing 2008 Championship Series MVP Nicole Trimboli to the Pride on draft day, Chicago has a roster filled with players who are accustomed to winning.
Eileen Canney, who won 10 games last summer, is the league’s reigning pitcher of the year, while first baseman Samantha Findley and outfielder Amber Patton were honored as all-stars. Catcher Rachel Folden is also a returning all-star who won the league’s rookie of the year award in 2008, while third baseman and leadoff batter Stacy May won NPF player of the year honors that same season.
“We will be relying on veteran players to lead the way for us,” Moore said.
Rookies will make an impact, too.
The Bandits landed six potential ROY candidates in the 2010 draft, including first-round pick Nikki Nemitz, the ace of No. 2-ranked Michigan’s pitching staff, teammate Angela Findlay, Oregon’s Neena Bryant, UNC’s Christine Knauer, La. Tech’s Amberly Waits and LSU outfielder Rachel Mitchell, who was chosen with a fourth-round pick that Chicago received from the Pride.
“The draft-day trade with the Pride worked out well for both teams,” Moore said. “We honored the request of a veteran ballplayer in Nicole Trimboli and in exchange will be bringing in one of the country’s best in Mitchell.”
The Bandits also re-signed veteran pitcher Jessica Sallinger, who was part of the championship team two years ago, to a staff that also features veteran Kristina Thorson, giving head coach Mickey Dean one of the deepest rotations in the league.
Dean, who led Radford University to the Big South Conference championship last spring, will begin his quest for a second National Pro Fastpitch title on June 20, when the Bandits face the Akron Racers.
“We feel confident with the group of young ladies we’re bringing in,” Moore said. “Because of the number of players we have that will be competing with national team this summer, our rookies will have the opportunity to come in and be a major contributor from the beginning.”
Bustos Showers Olympic Experience Upon Akron
By Dave Utnik
AKRON, OHIO—Opening day was still several weeks away. The Akron Racers hadn’t even assembled for their first practice, yet Crystl Bustos already had a pretty good idea of what her team was capable of this season.
It was all right there on video.
This is her first summer as a National Pro Fastpitch head coach and Bustos is approaching it the same way she did during a playing career that spanned three Olympic Games and culminated with 2008 USA Softball player of the year honors.
“I’m going to keep my team as informed as I can,” she said. “My job is to lead them.”
And Bustos is taking that seriously, which is why she spent the offseason studying video of every hitter and pitcher in the league.
“This isn’t high school. This isn’t college. This is the big leagues,” Bustos said. “They all know how to play the game. I’m not going to have to teach them how to hit or field. What I’m good at is fixing the loopholes that we have and finding the loopholes of everyone else.”
If Bustos had any loopholes in her swing, opposing pitchers rarely found them.
She helped the U.S. win a pair of Olympic gold medals — in 2000 and 2004 — and won professional championships with the Orlando Wahoos in 1999 and the Racers in 2005.
“In my opinion, no one does it better, than Crystl Bustos,” Akron General Manager Joey Arrietta said. “She has been coached by the best in the world, she has played with the best players in the world and she has played the game at the highest level in the world. Those are credentials that cannot be overlooked. She enjoys the respect of players, coaches and fans worldwide.
“Crystl and I have spent a lot of time together discussing the Racers, the NPF and the future of our game,” Arrietta said. “She is taking on an entirely new role for her but I believe it will be met with the same success she enjoyed as a player.”
Bustos helped introduce professional softball to Akron in 1999 and she has always been a fan favorite there.
Now it’s her hometown.
“I believe we can do great things with the Racers,” said Bustos, who was named the NPF’s player of the year in her final season.
“This is a great opportunity to give back to the game what the game has given me,” she said. “I was a pro before I became an Olympian and I want to do whatever I can to help develop the pro game.”
The Racers are the league’s most storied franchise and Bustos plans to keep it that way.
Her plan is to utilize every player on her roster to create match-up advantages and, most importantly, chemistry.
“I’m just going to keep it real. That’s all I want to do with the players. I will be completely honest with them,” Bustos said. “We aren’t going to play just nine players the entire season.
“All of my players are going to play. I’m going to utilize every player on the bench. The nine that play against Tennessee may not be the nine that play against Orlando.”
The Racers’ roster boasts players with U.S. National Team experience — second baseman Courtney Bures and pitcher Jamie Southern — as well as several NPF veterans, including third baseman Jackie Pasquerella, who played on the New England Riptide’s 2006 championship team, former Philadelphia Force outfielders Trena Peel and Sharonda McDonald and catcher Mackenzie Vandergeest, who has played for Chicago, Rockford and the USSSA Pride.
Akron will also add four rookies when the college season ends: Ohio State catcher Sam Marder, Purdue shortstop Liane Horiuchi and UCLA battery mates Megan Langenfeld and Kaila Shull.
The team’s major offseason acquisition, however, was the free agent signing of pitcher Taryne Mowatt, who made her professional debut with the Washington Glory in 2008 after leading Arizona to the Women’s College World Series title.
“The depth of our team is deeper than most,” Bustos said. “I think we have players with a lot of heart who want to be here because they love softball. I’ll take that any day.”
Knoxville Welcomes Diamonds With Open Arms
By Dave Utnik
KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE—Tennessee Diamonds general manager Sarah Fekete wanted to build a softball team that was worthy of playing in Knoxville.
She grew up in nearby Maryville and earned All-American honors while patrolling center field for the Lady Vols, so Fekete understands as well as anyone how revered the sport is in eastern Tennessee. And she figured that if National Pro Fastpitch was going to venture into such revered territory that the first season ought to be special.
“Bringing professional softball to my hometown is amazing,” said Fekete, who set a Southeastern Conference record with 110 hits and led the nation with a .500 batting average in 2006.
“I wish there would have been something like this when I was younger. It really will be great for the young girls in the area to have heroes and realize they can be successful in professional sports,” she said. “Having the Diamonds based here will do wonders for the sport and for local players and fans."
Even though she had only a few months to work with after acquiring the franchise rights to the defending champion Rockford Thunder on Dec. 29, Fekete knew exactly how to accomplish her goal.
After securing contracts with many of the players who starred on last summer’s Cowles Cup-winning squad and selecting Kentucky All-American Molly Johnson with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, she struck a deal with the USSSA Pride to acquire perhaps the most popular and successful player in Tennessee softball history — pitcher
Fekete traded league MVP Cat Osterman and catcher Megan Willis to the Pride and brought two former Lady Vols — Abbott and catcher Shannon Doepking — back to Knoxville for the Diamonds’ inaugural season.
“Our organization is thrilled to have the opportunity to bring Monica and Shannon back to East Tennessee,” said Fekete, who was teammates with both players at the University of Tennessee. “They were both outstanding players at UT and are going to make a significant impact for the Diamonds.”
Fekete, who remains the Lady Vols’ career record holder for batting average, on-base percentage and stolen bases, is making an impact, too. Only this time it’s not on the field.
After playing briefly for the Philadelphia Force, she was instrumental in securing an expansion team in Tennessee.
“The staff and I have worked tirelessly to make this franchise a reality for the 2010 season,” she said.
When NPF Commissioner Cheri Kempf officially introduced the Diamonds on Jan. 5, Fekete had just over five months to work out all the details prior to the team’s first game against the Akron Racers on June 9.
She acquired the temporary use of a nearby high school complex for home games and began searching for the best players available — signing former Philadelphia Force pitcher Megan Gibson and then using her first draft pick to choose Johnson, a .395 career hitter and the first All-American in University of Kentucky history.
The Diamonds will play 24 home games during their initial season at Alcoa High School before moving into a new baseball and softball complex that’s being designed by Orioles Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.
“East Tennessee is known throughout the country for its support of women’s athletics,” Kempf said. “The Lady Vols introduced successful softball to the area and, in turn, the fan base has grown for the sport. This will be a great home for the Diamonds.”
University of Tennessee co-coaches Karen and Ralph Weekly are happy to share the territory.
“It's important that our outstanding college softball players have the opportunity to continue their careers at the professional level,” Karen Weekly said. “Our Lady Vols program has enjoyed tremendous fan support, and I'm sure those fans will be thrilled to get behind professional softball as well.”
The fans will certainly get behind Abbott.
She is the most celebrated player in Lady Vols’ history, having pitched in the Olympics and won an NPF championship with the former Washington Glory three years ago.
She was the first Tennessee player to earn All-American honors and wound up setting NCAA records with 189 victories, 2,440 strikeouts, and 1,448 innings pitched.
Doepking, who caught Abbott in college, is regarded as one of the nation’s premier catchers. In 2007, she threw out 40 percent of the runners who tried to steal on her.
Fekete was there to witness it all from center field.
And now she’s ready for an encore.
“We are obviously very excited about the roster we’ve established and feel there is a strong chance to bring a championship back to Tennessee in August,” she said.