Softball has been Cat Osterman's ticket to some of the world's biggest stages and grandest destinations. Her ability to make a ball dance, dive and deceive provided passage around the globe, from Olympics in Athens and Beijing to pro leagues in the United States and Japan. What Abby Wambach is to soccer or Candace Parker is to basketball, Osterman is to softball as one of its most marketable names.
So how did Osterman, who remains arguably the best pitcher on the planet at 29 years old, find herself riding a bus for 10 hours this spring through the bleak, boundless landscape of West Texas?
For starters, a friend asked if she would.
Which is not to say that the most famous pitching coach in Division II softball didn't ask herself the same question as mile after mile of unending Lone Star State landscape rolled past the window of the St. Edward's University team bus en route to Oklahoma's Panhandle State University and a pair of Heartland Conference doubleheaders.
"I didn't bring my headphones, I'd watched the two movies they had played and I was just like, 'Can we please find a donor that wants to give us a private jet? This is not OK,'" Osterman joked. "But no, it's all worth it. The athletes are still out competing the same as a Division I team, and I think we've done a good job of creating an atmosphere where they're responsible for their actions and their play.
"They've come a long way. The season started off slow, but the last two-thirds of the season we've turned it around."
Currently the lone year-round paid assistant coach at St. Edward's University, a private liberal arts school of around 5,000 students, Osterman, of course, is more famously attached to the other softball program in Austin, the state capital that St. Edward's shares with the University of Texas. It was with the Longhorns that Osterman set the NCAA career strikeout record (since surpassed by Monica Abbott) and made three appearances in the Women's College World Series, a run of collegiate dominance interrupted only by a year's sabbatical that saw her win gold with the Unites States in the 2004 Olympics.
Sizable though the 6-foot-2 lefty's shadow was even before she started piling up records, she wasn't the only player who helped softball gain a foothold in Austin. A junior when Osterman arrived, Lindsay Gardner was part of a World Series team the following season that came within a win of playing for the national title. She remains Texas' all-time leader in hits and is second in career batting average. In addition to her own stint with the national team, she played professionally alongside Osterman with the Rockford Thunder of National Pro Fastpitch. After a two-year stint as an assistant coach at St. Edward's that followed the end of her playing career, Gardner left college coaching and took a job in sales. But when the St. Edward's head-coaching position came open after last season, she felt compelled to put her name in the mix. It was the only college job she had applied for since leaving St. Edward's, and she soon found herself in possession of a program and in need of an assistant.
The two former Longhorns were not a package deal for St. Edward's. Osterman likes to joke she was her friend's last choice for a pitching coach, the one part of the program the former hitting star felt she needed to entrust to someone else. In truth, it was more that Gardner didn't know the other was a choice at all. After a three-year stint as an assistant coach at DePaul, Osterman returned to Austin with little interest in seeking another coaching gig. The profession still appealed to her in the long run, but the grind of holding down a full-time coaching job, staying in shape to continue her own career (coming off an injury in last season's championship series, she'll join the NPF's USSSA Pride for the beginning of that league's season) and fulfilling the sundry appearance and endorsement obligations took a toll on her in Chicago.
It was only as Gardner's search stretched on that Osterman dropped hints to mutual friends that she'd be open to pitching in, so to speak. Home for a few days during a break in the NPF schedule last summer, Osterman got an offer from Gardner. It took her less than a day to accept.
There isn't glamour in taking a Division II job, certainly no trips to the World Series in Oklahoma City or games on national television, but there is a chance to build something with a friend -- and a boss.
"I think it broadens our relationship that we had," Gardner said. "We try to tell our kids that if one of us wasn't playing well, we were the first ones to get on each other's case about it and try to pump each other up. It wasn't always just 'Oh, we're great friends and we played together and we never fought.' We definitely test each other out.
"I think the level of respect for each other, with our knowledge of different aspects of the game, we know what we're doing is the right thing, and it's just kind of stepping back and letting both of us coach what we know how to coach. I try not to step on any toes with pitching and vice versa."
As was the case at DePaul, Osterman still draws plenty of attention and autograph requests at each stop. As was also the case with the Blue Demons, it doesn't take long for the awe factor to wear off for her own pitchers. Great players in just about every sport have a sometimes turbulent relationship with coaching. The more a player was able to do herself or himself, the thinking goes, the less capable she or he is of teaching those less skilled. None of Osterman's pitchers at St. Edward's are going to be able to make a ball do what she can make it do, to an even greater degree than at the Division I schools to which she's accustomed, but if awareness of that is half the battle, she may be the exception to the rule.
"The biggest thing is no matter what level I've played at, there is something I can bring to them," Osterman said. "And they know I didn't hold expectations for them like I do for myself. But I also tell them I'm not going to lower the expectations I do have for them because we're playing Division II. They all have the ability to be better and be a pitcher who could pitch pretty decently for a Division I team."
There are differences between the world the two coaches played in at Texas and the one they now occupy. Some are monetary, whether in the form of more limited scholarship money or less ostentatious training and playing facilities (or those bus rides). Others are philosophical. Academics are rarely marginalized in Division I softball, but sport and school are left to find a happy equilibrium as equal commitments, especially in-season at major programs. At the Division II level, softball's place is more clearly secondary, a relationship Osterman admits sometimes "irritates" the part of her that invested such a degree of time and effort into perfecting her own craft. The challenge is creating an environment that embraces the surroundings without using them as an excuse.
"It's not that they can't do the things that we could do; I think it's more their expectations of themselves," Gardner said. "That was a huge thing for me -- I expect them to do specific things, I expect them to play with a certain intensity and passion for the game. When we as coaches coach with that intensity and passion, I think it's going to come out through their play. And being that it is only our first year here, we haven't even had a full year with all of these kids. It's not that they can't do the things we could do; we haven't had a ton of time to teach them all the things we know."
With a chance to win the regular-season conference championship this past weekend by winning two of three at home against St. Mary's University of San Antonio, St. Edward's instead lost three in a row and had to settle for second place. The Hilltoppers, as St. Edward's teams are known, get a chance for redemption next weekend when they host the conference tournament. The games won't draw thousands of fans, and the results won't resonate even within the world of college softball, but that reality won't change anything about the way Gardner and Osterman approach their jobs this week.
The most recognizable pitcher in the world may currently work far off the beaten path, but the program she continues to help Gardner mold is the center of her softball universe for now.