Maybe only a fraction of the country knows it, but thousands of women at the high school, college, and amateur level play fast-pitch softball and play it well. Just how well will be seen when the United States competes in the women's fast-pitch softball championship at this year's Pan American Games (Aug. 9-20) in Indianapolis. Eight countries will be represented, including Canada, the defending champion.
``The US is expected to win, and while I know very little about our competition, the kind of home-grown talent I saw recently during two weeks of US trials at Colorado Springs makes me think that we will [win],'' said Carol Spanks, head coach of the American team.
Spanks's 374-154-6 record during nine years at California Polytechnic University in Pomona tells you all you need to know about her as a coach.
She was also a good enough player to be voted into the Amateur Softball Association Hall of Fame. Few shortshops have ever had her range in the field, speed on the bases, and power at the plate.
Asked for a capsule description of women's fast-pitch softball, Spanks replied: ``Basically it's a defensive game, although that shouldn't be interpreted as dull. We do have girls who hit with power. But we're also exciting whenever a team gets into its short game, meaning bunting, hitting and running, and squeezing people in from third base. Usually because the pitching on both teams is so good, there isn't a lot of scoring.''
The reason Spanks thinks the 18-player US squad is going to do so well in the Pan Am Games is because of its great balance. She may even substitute an entire infield or outfield from game to game. She also thinks this will be a great offensive team, capable of hitting for power as well as average.
But the crowning touch should be its pitching, which will be handled by three of the most dominating hurlers in the country: Michele Granger of Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif.; Ella Vilche, formally of Fresno State in Fresno, Calif.; and Rhonda Wheatley of Cal Poly, Pomona.
Granger, a 17-year-old phenom, still has a year of high school left before she graduates. She made the US team with a fastball delivery that seems to shrink a softball to the size of a doorknob.
Vilche throws a dazzling assortment of curves, drops, and spinners. In 1983, her last year at Fresno, Ella had an earned-run average of 0.30. Since then she has been pitching amateur ball for the Reading (Calif.) Rebels.
Wheatley, who has a unique slingshot delivery (as opposed to the more conventional windmill style), is the winningest pitcher ever in the NCAA's major-college division, with 139 victories and just 60 losses.
All three are capable of pitching two complete, seven-inning games in the same day.
Whenever one of them is being used as a starter, Spanks will have the other two ready to enter the game from bullpen - not that a relief pitcher is often necessary.