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Saturday, August 21, 2004
Updated: August 22, 3:17 PM ET
Softball team among U.S. bright spots

Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- At least there's one group of American athletes maintaining their golden glow under the scalding Mediterranean sky.

The U.S. softball team, unscored upon and seemingly unstoppable, is shining brighter than any of its Olympic teammates. In fact, no squad -- American or otherwise -- can touch what the softballers are doing this summer.

"Wow, this is fun!'' outfielder Amanda Freed said after the U.S. finished a seven-game shutout of the first round. "We're doing just what we came here to do.''

At least somebody is.

While the United States entered the weekend leading in overall medals, the American team has also had a number of disappointments that in some ways outweigh the gold, silver and bronze-laden successes.

While Michael Phelps made a huge splash in the pool, it wasn't the golden cannonball he wanted to deliver. The men's basketball team lost to Puerto Rico and Lithuania, and barely survived Greece. Alan Webb failed to end America's 35-year medal drought at 1,500 meters. The shot putters' expected sweep went kaput.

Venus Williams got bounced in the third round, as did Andy Roddick. The gymnastic teams tumbled to silver -- not gold. Paul Hamm's stunning win has suddenly lost some sheen because of a scoring controversy.

Oh, and let's not forget the U.S. baseball squad. It wasn't good enough to make the European trip.

The U.S. softball team, though, is rolling. During round-robin play, they red, white and blew away the competition, erasing records with every run, strikeout and lopsided victory.

In one week, they made their own Greek ruins.

"That team,'' said Australian coach Simon Roskvist, "is clearly on a mission.''

One that's still two victories shy of completion. The United States, which outscored its opponents 41-0 and extended a win streak to 77 games during the preliminary round, plays Australia in Sunday's second semifinal.

The two-time defending gold medalists gave the Aussies a 10-0 "mercy rule'' beating a few days ago. But to win a gold, they'll have to get past Tanya Harding. Nope, not the notorious figure skater. This one spells her name with an "a'' and has an "A-plus'' fastball.

Harding, 3-0 and unscored on in 26 innings here, is the only pitcher to beat the U.S. twice in Olympic play. She also led UCLA to a win over American coach Mike Candrea's Arizona team for the 1995 NCAA title.

"Oh, I remember Tanya Harding,'' Candrea said, dryly.

Candrea likely will start two-time Olympian Lisa Fernandez against the Aussies, saving fireballer Jennie Finch.

That's because the U.S.-Australia winner moves into Monday's gold medal game while the loser faces the Japan-China seminal winner in Sunday night's bronze medal game. That winner plays the U.S.-Australia winner for gold.

It's a bit confusing. But what the U.S. team has done the past few days in the sizzling heat inside the Helliniko Sports Complex is clear.

The Americans have dominated the diamond with speed, pitching, defense and depth. After watching them dismantle the field in round-robin play, whispers of this being the best women's softball team ever assembled are growing louder.

"I don't know if it is,'' said pitcher/third baseman Fernandez. "In '96 and 2000, we got it done and won gold. This team hasn't done that. Ask me on Monday and I'll know. It's not where you start, it's where you finish.''

U.S. softball started over four years ago.

At the Sydney Games, the U.S. had its aura stripped. The Americans' 112-game winning streak came to a screeching halt with a loss to Japan, and two more losses in a row put the U.S. in peril of losing its grip on Olympic gold.

Somehow, the team recovered and won its final five games, capped by a 2-1 victory in extra innings over Japan. But there was lasting damage. The tournament showed the world had caught up to the U.S. team's fastball. Gone were the days when the sight of the Americans made opponents quake.

That is, until they came to Greece.

"I still think a lot of teams are intimidated by them,'' Harding said. "I think that's still a factor.''

So is having a four-woman rotation that includes two gold medal winners and the two best young arms on the planet.

In Fernandez and Lori Harrigan, the U.S. has a pair of 33-year-old aces with a decade of international experience. And in 23-year-old Finch and 21-year-old Cat Osterman, perhaps the best of the bunch, the Americans have two fearless kids to build the future around.

"Sometimes I feel sorry for teams,'' said third baseman Crystl Bustos. "I wouldn't want to face our pitchers.''

Nobody wants to face Bustos, one of six players back from Sydney. She hit her third homer Friday and has just missed hitting several others. She's the heart of a lineup that doesn't have a hole from top to bottom.

"They have the best of the best,'' said China coach Shan McDonald. "Look at their roster -- UCLA, Arizona, Stanford. The U.S. can pick one from here, one from here. I'm not surprised by what they're doing.''