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Monday, May 19, 2008
With Penna in the circle, things are looking up for Stanford

By Graham Hays
ESPN.com

AMHERST, Mass. -- Things are looking up for Missy Penna and Stanford as the Cardinal pursue their first trip to the Women's College World Series since 2004.

Missy Penna
Missy Penna brings a new attitude to the circle for Stanford.

Then again, people are always looking up around a pitcher who is frequently found scaling trees in pursuit of fresh produce on campus in Palo Alto with far more success than the opposing hitters have climbing the ladder in hopeless pursuit of her rise ball.

In her third season with the Cardinal, Penna now stands shoulder to shoulder with the best pitchers in college softball. But she has long stood alone as one of the sport's most appealingly intriguing personalities.

"She's definitely the adventurous type," explained Stanford senior Tricia Aggabao, one of Penna's closest friends on the team. "She's a real, genuine, down-to-earth person. [She's] very low-maintenance; she doesn't need too much. She's definitely unique."

And about that orange tree near the post office on campus -- does one of the premier athletes at a school littered with All-Americans of every sporting variety ever get strange looks when she leaves terra firma to pilfer some truly organic Vitamin C?

"One time I encountered another athlete we knew, and she was like, 'What are you doing up there?'" Penna said. "But no, because I think other people do it too … or they see me and they're like, 'Hey, can you get me some?'"

A native Floridian who is one of only a handful of East Coast players competing in the Pac-10 -- softball's equivalent of an American playing soccer in the English Premier League -- Penna has always looked to expand her horizons on her own terms. Growing up in Miami as one of 10 children, she didn't necessarily spend a lot of one-on-one time in the wild beyond an occasional summer camping trip, but she hypothesized that a childhood spent playing sports outdoors instilled a desire to get out and do things. Things like making the four-hour bike trip from Stanford to San Francisco with Aggabao or spending more than a week hiking a nearly 100-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia with two of her sisters and a friend.

In a sport in which pitching aces sometimes comport themselves as if they were Aretha Franklin fronting eight glove-wielding backup singers, Penna is closer in archetype to a quirky indie rock lead singer like fellow Floridian Jolie Lindholm.

"You can't figure Missy out," coach John Rittman said. "She's a free spirit; she's got a lot of energy. Off the field -- she's a civil engineering major at Stanford, so she balances life extremely well. And I think coming from a large family helps keep things in perspective. She's not selfish at all. She's really a giving person. She has a fun side to her; she enjoys life."

All of which would make for an interesting world view in any college athlete. But Penna's story is also noteworthy at this time of year because it comes as part of a package that could play a significant role in determining the national championship.

Seeded No. 12 in the NCAA tournament, Stanford will head to the College Station Super Regional as an underdog against No. 5 Texas A&M. The Aggies have their own ace in player-of-the-year candidate Megan Gibson and are themselves eager to return to the World Series for the second consecutive season. But based on how Penna mowed down the field at the Amherst Regional, much as she had during Pac-10 play, the Cardinal are serious contenders to win in College Station and in the College World Series.

Missy Penna and Rosey Neill
Missy Penna and Rosey Neill have teamed up for a few impressive performances.

Penna didn't allow an earned run in four starts in Amherst and finished off her stay with a no-hitter against Massachusetts. She also became just the eighth pitcher in the long and illustrious history of the Pac-10 to reach 400 strikeouts in a season, and heads to Texas with a 37-8 record, 411 strikeouts and 1.00 ERA.

Sunday's no-hitter came 30 minutes after Penna went the distance in a 2-1 loss in which both runs for the Minutewomen were unearned. And as good as Penna's signature rise was time and again against Massachusetts, it was the poise the junior showed in bouncing back after the loss and her command of a complete arsenal of pitches that carried the day.

"I think Missy, if you track her career, she was very good, very young," Rittman said. "And she's pitched internationally for a long time [she pitched against Rittman and the United States last summer as a member of the Dominican national team], so she's got a lot of experience. But I don't know if Missy was truly a pitcher; she was more of a thrower. She threw a lot of rise balls and struck a lot of people out with rise balls in high school. When she got to college, specifically the Pac-10 conference, other teams laid off the rise ball. So she had to develop some other pitches."

In a career-high 327.1 innings so far this season, she's allowed just 77 walks and a career-low 18 home runs. Big innings, wherein Penna would walk a hitter or two and then watch a flat rise sail out of the park, were often her downfall during her first two seasons (although with a 47-23 record those two seasons, "often" might be a relative term).

"I think a big difference is probably just experience," Penna said with a note of self-deprecation. "I've learned the hard way in many instances, like if I put it down the middle, they're going to hit a home run."

It's appropriate that the most recent leg of Penna's trek toward the peak of her sport took her to within a few miles of the same Appalachian Trail she traveled many miles to the south. A civil engineering major at one of the nation's most prestigious schools who yearns to take wilderness survival classes and forages for food while other students hit vending machines, she is unlike any stereotype of a softball ace. But when it comes to her success on the field, Penna is starting to closely resemble many of the aces who made the trip to Oklahoma City before her.

And her teammates are ready to follow her there, even if the woods remain hers to travel alone.

"There are probably a few who don't like the idea of cooking their own food and being hungry and going to the bathroom in the wilderness behind a tree," Penna allowed. "But usually they just laugh when I tell them about the stories."

They probably roll their eyes skyward while they laugh. Everything always seem to turn out looking up when Penna's involved.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.