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WomenOf the Month 8-04: USA Softball Team

Gold Three-Peat is Complete

When the 2004 U.S. Olympic Softball Team was selected in September 2003, Coach Mike Candrea made two statements to his players - ###If you train the way you are capable, you have the potential to be a "Special" group### and ###I don###t just want to win, I want to dominate!###

Both of those statements came true during the 2004 Olympic Games. The performance by the U.S. Olympic Softball Team will go down in history as one of the most dominant ever. The U.S. squad led by Candrea is certainly the best women###s softball team ever assembled and possibly the most dominant Olympic team of any sport. With its perfect 9-0 record and its string of eight consecutive shutouts, this team proved it was indeed something ###Special###.

Just a month prior to the opening of the Olympic Games, the USA Softball family lost someone very special when Sue Candrea, wife of head coach Mike Candrea passed away suddenly while on tour with the USA team. Coach Candrea made the decision to carry on and lead his team in Athens because he knew that is what Sue would have wanted. The team placed ###SC### on the back of their helmets and wore black wrist bands with Sue###s initials stitched on them to honor her during the Games.

Kicking off its defense of its Olympic gold medal on August 14, winning pitcher Jennie Finch (La Mirada, Calif.) completed three innings in a 7-0 run-rule victory against Italy allowing just one hit. Lefties Lori Harrigan (Las Vegas, Nev.) and Cat Osterman (Houston, Texas) also saw action from the circle while lead-off hitter Natasha Watley (Irvine, Calif.) tied the Olympic record for most hits in a game going 4-for-4. Kelly Kretschman (Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.) and Jessica Mendoza (Camarillo, Calif.) each contributed two hits a piece.

Up next, the U.S. had to run the gauntlet facing its three toughest opponents in Australia, Japan and China in consecutive order. These three teams were responsible for the USA###s three consecutive losses in Sydney and all had reached the medal stands in the past two Olympic Games.

With veteran Lisa Fernandez (Long Beach, Calif.) in the circle, the U.S. exploded for 10-runs against the Aussie contingent for its second run-rule victory of the games. The 10-0 win was the most decisive U.S. victory over Australia in the history of this storied rivalry.

Totaling nine hits, the U.S. bats were unstoppable as the play of Fernandez led the way. After allowing just one hit from the circle, the 5###6" legend helped her cause from the plate going with a 2-for-3 with three RBI. Catcher Stacey Nuveman (La Verne, Calif.) added fuel to the fire with the first U.S. long ball of the tournament in the bottom of the fourth sending a three RBI shot to centerfield. Leah O###Brien- Amico (Chino Hills, Calif.) added a two RBI base hit as the U.S. completed one of its best performances in Olympic history. The last time they had scored double-digit runs in the Games was the first game in 1996 when they defeated Puerto Rico 10-0.

A re-match of the 2000 gold medal game saw the U.S. and Japan battle into extra innings. A pitcher###s duel between Osterman and Japan###s Juri Takayama, the 6###2" rookie performed as a veteran lifting the U.S. to a 3-0 victory with 11 strikeouts.

Back and forth through the regulation seven innings, with chants of ###USA### echoing throughout the stadium, the tides changed as the international tie breaker rule opened the top of the eighth. This rule allows the last batter out from the previous inning to be placed on second base. Pinch- runner Amanda Freed (Cypress, Calif.) entered for the U.S. at second base before a successful sacrifice bunt from Nuveman placed Freed at third with one out.

An incredible at-bat that included 17 pitches, Lovieanne Jung (Fountain Valley, Calif.) battled Takayama before being issued a walk to put runners on the corners. Jung###s at-bat was actually extended when Japan third baseman Reika Utsugi failed to make a routine play on a foul ball due to the bright sunlight.

Coming through in the clutch, Kretschman drove a sacrifice fly to centerfield to plate Freed and give the U.S. the run it needed. With the momentum in its favor, the U.S. added two insurance runs thanks to hits from Mendoza and pinch-hitter Jenny Topping (Whittier, Calif.) for the eventual 3-0 win.

Improving to 4-0, the U.S. remained solid through round-robin play battling China to a 4-0 victory on August 17. Two-time gold medalist Lori Harrigan (Las Vegas, Nev.) recorded the third one-hit performance of the Games for the U.S. as it strolled along outscoring opponents 24-0 through the first four games. Against China, Topping led with a 2-for-2 outing while Jung stepped up with a huge first inning two RBI single to left field.

With just three games remaining in round-robin play, the U.S. needed one more win to secure a spot in the medal round and two wins to assure itself of a medal.

Against Canada the USA continued to dominate its opponents with a 7-0 run-rule victory to improve to 5-0 and secure a spot in the medal round. The win marked the third run-rule victory for Team USA and its fifth consecutive shutout.

With its fourth one-hit performance, Finch led the U.S. against Canada with eight strikeouts while the bats provided seven runs on 11 hits. Back-to-back home runs by Bustos and Fernandez provided the offensive highlights for the Red, White and Blue but Canada had a scoring opportunity of its own.

In the top of the fourth inning, Canada advanced a runner to third base on the U.S. for only the second time in five games. An infield base hit by Kristy Odamura followed by a fielding error by Jung put runners on the corners with no outs but the U.S. silenced the rally with two strikeouts and a play at the plate that saw Jung redeem herself with a solid throw to Nuveman to nail Odamura at home.

Fernandez once again utilized her skills on both sides of the field in game six, leading the U.S. to its fourth run-rule victory with a 7-0 win against host Greece. Going 2-for-2 from the plate with an RBI, as well as, a one-hit performance from the circle, Fernandez moved Team USA to 6-0 and guaranteed the U.S. its third consecutive Olympic medal.

"We know the tradition of USA Softball and we came to Athens to win gold," said Mendoza. "Anything less would be a huge disappointment and unacceptable for the standards set for us."

A 3-0 win over World bronze medalist Chinese Taipei in its final game of round-robin play moved the U.S. into the play-off round as the top seed. Through seven games in round-robin competition, the USA outscored its opponents 41-0 and held opposing hitters to a .080 batting average.

In the opening round of the playoffs it was the U.S. versus arch rival Australia once again. Fernandez, who has a long history against the Aussies in Olympic competition, was on top of her game, leading from the circle with a three-hit complete game performance.

A pitcher###s duel through the first three innings, Fernandez had a clutch hit to put the U.S. on top 1-0 in the fourth inning. Three insurance runs were added in the fifth when Bustos connected on a bases loaded single and Nuveman provided a sacrifice fly. A solo home run by Kretschman provided the final run of the game for the USA.

With the win, the U.S. moved into the gold medal game for the third consecutive Olympic Games and awaited the winner of Japan/Australia in the bronze medal game. Although they had dominated through the first eight games, they refused to buy into the hype and knew a poor performance in the gold medal game and their Olympic gold medal dreams would be over.

"It###s not how you start, It###s how you finish," said U.S. veteran Fernandez. "This team has played really well this week but now we must be ready to play our best game on Monday."

A 3-0 win by Australia in the bronze medal game set up a rematch between the USA and Australia for the third time in these Games. This marked the first time Australia made an appearance in the gold medal game of any Olympics and the first time the U.S. had faced Australian###s Tanya Harding sinc