Thursday, June 30, 2011

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: USA Softball junior women’s national team in different role in these games

Lauren Haeger doesn't get to play the underdog role much. The rocket-armed 18-year-old dominated high school hitters in Arizona this spring. She's got a 3-0 record in international competition. She's heading to the University of Florida on a softball scholarship this fall.

On Wednesday night in Salem, though? Little chance for Haeger and her team -- and she knew it.

Meet the Washington Generals of the women's fast-pitch softball ranks. It's a team good enough to make things interesting (sometimes), but a team destined to be defeated nonetheless.

A crowd of 2,922 paid $10-$20 to watch stars such as Stacey May-Johnson belt homers, Chelsea Thomas fire fastballs and Rhea Taylor chase down liners in the gaps of Salem Memorial Ballpark, but sports are not a victimless enterprise.

Somebody's got to lose to the USA Softball women's national team.

And for two weeks this summer, as Team USA tunes up for the Canadian Open and World Cup of Softball with a series of exhibitions, that fortunate bunch is the USA Softball junior women's national team.

"I think we're doing really well," Haeger said after her junior team lost 6-1 in the first game of a doubleheader. "We're not supposed to win. We're not supposed to. So we're making these games a lot closer than everyone's expecting."

Haeger's right, you know. That first game -- and Haeger's performance in particular -- was impressive. Especially when you consider the junior team lost two games to Team USA in Florida last week by a combined score of 25-1. Her outing gained even more luster after Team USA won Wednesday's nightcap 11-0 in five innings

Haeger is only a few months removed from her high school graduation, yet she held Team USA to three runs over five innings. And she did it while facing players she grew up idolizing.

"Watching Megan Langenfeld on TV when she played at UCLA was really cool," Haeger said. "And then all of a sudden, 'Oh! I'm pitching against Megan Langenfeld!' You never thought that would happen, but it did. It's a really good challenge for all of us."

And that's just it: Part of what makes these Team USA players so impressive is the caliber of opponent they are pounding. The junior players are not some rag-tag bunch. They're among the best in the world at what they do -- except when they face these women.

Junior team pitcher Dallas Escobedo was the co-Most Outstanding Player of the 2011 Women's College World Series. She went 37-3 this season at Arizona State, becoming the first freshman pitcher since 1990 to win the national title-clinching game.

Didn't matter. She got crushed here. Destroyed. Escobedo didn't last three innings in Wednesday's nightcap, as Team USA roughed her up for eight earned runs in 2 13.

"I knew that going in: They're going to hit off me," Escobedo said. "They're the best team in the nation. ... I kept telling myself, 'They're supposed to do this, they're supposed to do this.' "

Junior team cleanup hitter Kylee Lahners, a Washington recruit, ripped nine hits in 23 at-bats in the 18-under Pan American Games, a tournament in which her squad went 9-0. She went 0-for-6 on Wednesday and struck out twice. Most of her teammates had similar difficulties.

The short-term pursuit for the junior team players, of course, is to beat their heroes.

The long-term pursuit is to become them.

"That's the main goal," Haeger said. "We're all in college -- we have one that's still going to be a senior in high school -- so we're all really young. We'll be working hard for the next couple years, and hopefully that'll be us in that [Team USA] dugout the next time."

Until then, though, there's a clear division between two squads that both wear USA on their chests. They're by no means hostile to each other, just separate. They go to the same sites but ride different buses. They eat at the same restaurants but at different tables.

Haeger got to meet one of her childhood heroes, star Team USA outfielder Kaitlin Cochran, but that was mostly by chance.

"I stood behind her in the line to get subs, so she talked to me the whole time, told me which sub was the best," Haeger said. "So I started talking to her that way. We don't really get to do that much stuff together. There's just a big age difference."

And a corresponding gap in experience and talent. One that turns superstars into underdogs, if only for a night.

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