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Thursday, October 13, 2011
New roster, same challenge for USA Softball

By Graham Hays

The Pan American Games will offer a glimpse of the future for the United States in international softball. That much is inescapable.

In a post-Olympic landscape, it just isn't clear whether that means an American roster with personality, potential and precious little experience is playing for anything more than the present in Guadalajara, Mexico.

In his first year as coach of Team USA, Ken Eriksen took charge of a roster comprised of current and recent college stars. Selected in June, the team played a handful of exhibitions and two tournaments during the summer, and now heads to the Pan Am Games after just five days of practice together since the end of July.

"Long story short, do I feel like I have a handle on it? No, not at all," Eriksen said. "It's still a work in progress."

In that respect, it's the perfect team for the times.

The 2010 world championship in Venezuela marked softball's first major international championship after the 2008 Olympics, the sport's final appearance before being dropped from the Olympic program. But for the United States, rather than the first step in a new world, that tournament in Venezuela was a final hurrah for a core group of players stunned by Japan in the gold-medal game in Beijing. Behind the pitching of familiar names such as Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott and the hitting of stars such as Jessica Mendoza and Natasha Watley, the Americans rolled to a gold medal and a convincing final win against Japan.

It wasn't until this year that the future fully arrived.

The core of the national team walked away, most to focus on National Pro Fastpitch, the four-team summer professional league that often lost its biggest draws to the numerous annual tournaments that dot the international calendar. When the new-look national team broke selection camp in June, Kaitlin Cochran and Ashley Holcombe were the only holdovers from the 2010 champions.

If there is a face of the new generation, one that hopes not to be a lost generation, it is Cochran. She was the kind of college player at Arizona State who once drew an intentional walk to lead off an inning in the Women's College World Series. In her first full year out of school, she hit in the middle of the order for Team USA in the world championship. But instead of being the young rising star of the national program, she finds herself one of the lone veterans on a roster with nine active collegians and three more players who completed their eligibility this past spring.

"I still wanted to be a part of Team USA," Cochran said. "It's still my dream to play for this team and represent your country and be one of 17 girls on this team with such great history. I didn't want to give that up. I respect the decision that my teammates made going to the NPF. They're trying to grow professional ball. I'm just at a place right now where I still want to live up my kid dream, as I always call it, playing for Team USA."

The childhood dream nonetheless comes with some adult dilemmas. When softball was dropped from the Olympic program, USA Softball lost much of its funding from the United States Olympic Committee, a total that previously reached mid-six figures in non-Olympic years and climbed close to seven figures in Olympic years.

With that financial reality, it's not clear whether the national team can maintain the kind of veteran core it had in the past or whether it will become essentially a college all-star team, with a roster that turns over every couple of years. As a new member of the ASA/USA Softball Board of Directors, Cochran is part of the process of finding sponsors to ensure it's the former, but it's a steep climb. On the current roster, only Stacy May-Johnson is more than two years out of college, and even she has made it clear that future participation comes second to her obligations as a coach at the University of Iowa.

"The resolution of keeping the team together, players playing in the program for a long time, has to do with finances more than anything else," Eriksen said. "We're looking for different revenue sources besides the USOC, money that came from being a part of the Olympic program, and how we can do that to better our chances of having veterans."

In the short term, winning is a prerequisite, if not a guarantee, for attention and support. The United States has dominated softball in the Pan Am Games, winning gold six straight times and seven of eight times since the sport was added to the program in 1979. Experience aside, the current team remains the heavy favorite to continue that run. But even in a tournament that doesn't include Japan, games are no longer formalities on the march toward gold.

"When I first started getting involved in fastpitch softball in the late 1980s, you could go out to the ball field, throw your glove on the field and come away with victory in the Pan Am Games," Eriksen said. "You can't do that anymore. All these countries have come a long, long way."

As always in international softball, a team is only as good as its pitching. The United States doesn't have a proven ace like Osterman, Abbott or Jennie Finch, let alone three of them together, but it has a young quartet -- left-handers Whitney Canion and Keilani Ricketts and right-handers Chelsea Thomas and Jordan Taylor -- who allowed just eight earned runs in 39 innings in the World Cup of Softball in July. Blistering heat in Oklahoma City played a role, but no American pitcher went the distance in a game that lasted more than four innings in that competition, forcing opponents to deal with multiple looks in each game.

"I was very impressed with the way the pitching staff came together, and I think they came together as a staff more than as any individual superstar situation," Eriksen said. "We have a very diverse pitching staff. ... Having two lefties and two righties, and all four throw differently, I thought they all complemented each other very well. I was very, very happy with the way they bought into the staff philosophy of what's going on, not one person to ride."

The team has an emerging identity at the plate, particularly with outfielders Michelle Moultrie and Rhea Taylor sparking a small-ball approach at the top of the order, and infielders May-Johnson and Valerie Arioto sandwiching Cochran in the middle of the order (those three combined for 44 of the team's 83 total bases in the World Cup).

It's also a team whose identity comes in part from what it isn't. As fans and media keep reminding the players, they aren't their predecessors.

"It's kind of impossible [to ignore], especially with our world now -- everybody is on Twitter, on Facebook, everyone sees everything everyone is saying," Taylor said. "We grew together because we believed in us. Everybody was busy talking about all the girls that had left, so I think we grew as a team, as a unit, saying we're going to make a name for ourselves. It doesn't matter if they don't know who we are now."

Now is an uneasy time for Team USA. There are few guarantees for the future with Olympic reinstatement being impossible until 2020 at the earliest. The past presents an impossibly high standard of success.

Nevertheless, now is also an opportunity.

"I think we've established a pretty good core as it is right now; I'm really excited for that," Cochran said. "I definitely see a lot of the same girls, a lot of the same faces that are going to be here next year for the world championships in Canada. I think that's what we're trying to do. I think that's what [the coaches] are trying to establish here, just a new core, a new set of faces for USA Softball."

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