|Friday, July 26
Updated: July 28, 11:04 PM ET
The center of Team USA's wheelhouse
By Amy Chou
It would be an easy mistake to make.
The Women's Softball World Championship kick off Friday in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada, where 16 of the world's best teams will compete for one of four spots for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. And beyond the uniformed red, white and blue jerseys, an uncanny observation could be made.
Well, mostly. There is Lisa Fernandez, Amanda Freed and Stacey Nuveman, three U.S. team veterans and among the most recognizable alumnae of UCLA's powerhouse teams that have won nine NCAA championships since 1982. In fact, there are 13 native Californians on the 16-player U.S. softball team, seven of whom are either past or present Bruins.
The source of UCLA's depth of talented players can be traced an hour's drive south on Interstate 405, to Orange County, the premiere softball player factory in the world.
Though these world-class athletes hail from various colleges, including Arizona's Jennie Finch, a two-time college softball player of the year, and Fresno State's Nina Lindenberg and Laura Berg, the latter a two-time Olympian, these women share more than a talent for the game. They also share area codes.
They are among nine players who grew up within a 25-mile radius, mostly in Orange County, the thriving metropolis of its own sandwiched between Los Angeles and San Diego. Many of the players competed with or against each other in the area's highly competitive softball youth leagues, their reputation as a college scouting oasis so renowned that parents have been known to uproot their families from across country and relocate to Southern California so that their daughters could hone their skills on the diamonds there.
"It's not a secret that most of the best players are from the West, particularly found in the Pac-10 schools," said Diane Ninemire, head coach of the California-Berkeley softball team that won this year's Women's College World Series. "California, especially in Orange County, has always been ahead of the game. The 18-and-under leagues are almost professional in that (the girls) are given hitting and pitching coaches. … It is a very sophisticated system."
So sophisticated are the Travel Ball leagues -- for girls from 8- to 18-years-old -- that they have become a farm system for elite college softball programs.
Playing in Travel Ball in Orange County gave Nuveman a considerable edge by the time UCLA came calling. In many cases, the leagues yield better-trained players than those on high school teams, practically deeming varsity softball almost obsolete.
"Girls play -- especially if they're not enrolled in high-exposure high schools like Mater Dei (a national high school power in Santa Ana, Calif.) -- to get scouted by colleges," Thomas Nuveman said. "You don't have to play in high school anymore to get scholarships."
The quality of instruction, given at such an early age, is a primary reason for softball's evolution in these leagues, Stacey Nuveman said.
"You're trained properly from the beginning," she said. "You played to consistently get good coaching, and that's an advantage other states don't have."
A seasoned player might have as much as a decade's worth of development before ever taking the field for her first collegiate game. Pitcher Jennie Finch joined her first team at the age of 5 and she hasn't had much downtime from softball since. "There are two weeks off for Christmas, and then you're at it again," said her mother, Beverly Finch.
The moderate climate that allows for year-round play is the secret sauce that has given softball players from Southern California such an advantage on the college recruiting front. But schools in the South and the East, despite working around less than favorable weather, are picking up their fast-pitch games. Six players from Florida and five from Texas are on the list of invitees to the 2002 USA Softball Women's World Championship Camp, and at least one player hails from such cold-weather states as Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, New Jersey, New York and Oklahoma.
On the collegiate level, Michigan and Oklahoma made their marks in the Women's College World Series when they qualified for the elite eight bracket. They also were granted regionals sites in both states this year, but notably left out as a regional tournament host were any colleges from Northeastern states.
Ninemire is among many softball educators who say they believe parity will come as Eastern states develop youth leagues and vie for equal representation.
"If you don't host events in your area, people just won't know about the sport," Ninemire said. "A community needs to get excited and become willing to invest in it."
In the meantime, Mike Candrea, head coach of Team USA, will depend on his stockpile of Orange County players and Travel Ball's best to recapture World Championship gold this week, and later, set the U.S. on the road to Athens.
Amy Chou is an intern with ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.