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SULPHUR, La. -- The more things change for Alisa Goler, the more they remain the same.
The more things change for Monica Abbott, the more miserable the experience for anyone asked to step into the batter's box against her.
And in no small part because of a rookie who doesn't seem to notice that her surroundings have changed and a veteran who shows every ounce of her experience, the Chicago Bandits are one win away from playing for the National Pro Fastpitch softball championship for the third time in four years. The Bandits defeated the Akron Racers 8-1 Thursday night in the opening game of a best-of-three semifinal playoff series at McMurry Park. The second game was postponed Friday and rescheduled for Saturday.
On the same day she was honored as the league's top rookie -- she led all players in the regular season with 11 home runs -- Goler delivered the double that drove home Danielle Zymkowitz and gave the Bandits a 2-1 lead in the top of the third inning. Goler's one-out drive into the gap opened the floodgates, as Stacy May-Johnson and Amber Patton followed with run-scoring hits. Tammy Williams added a three-run home run in the seventh.
If there was pressure in that moment, it didn't seem to faze Goler in an at-bat that went to a full count. And if there was pressure playing in her first postseason game as a professional, it didn't seem to faze her as she waited to lead off the top of the fifth. With a pair of high school teams engaged in a dance contest along the baselines between innings, Goler stepped in line next to the contestants in front of the Bandits' dugout and lent nimble feet to the cause.
The Bandits knew they were getting one of the best batting eyes in college softball when they selected her from Georgia in the third round of this year's entry draft. They knew they were getting a local product, adding the Frankfort, Ill., native to a roster that includes former DePaul star Patton and former Northwestern star Williams, among others.
But it turns out they wanted the goofball, too. The one willing to dance in front of the dugout or challenge Abbott to get a batter out in a certain number of pitches in the final inning.
"We were so happy to get her," Bandits coach Darrick Brown said. "I watched Georgia probably more than any college team in the country, and I just loved how they were always having fun. We wanted players like that in Chicago, so we were very happy to get her. She's just a very mature rookie, and when she's up to bat, we're expecting something big usually."
That Goler had a chance to live up to those expectations was linked to Abbott's ability to show off a mature mental game. Called for illegal pitches on her first three offerings, Abbott ultimately walked Sharonda McDonald with a fourth pitch and watched her come around to score from first on a grounder to third base -- McDonald ran from first on the pitch, took third on the throw and scored when the Bandits left home undefended.
"It's a little bit frustrating at first," Abbott said. "I just try to keep a level mind. I was more trying to figure out what exactly [the umpire] was calling [on the illegal pitches]. He wasn't very talkative, but once he came over and we discussed it, I felt a little bit more comfortable and made sure that we were on the same page. But still, I've got to make sure I throw my game and throw my best pitches and then let umpires call what they're going to call."
Abbott got out of the inning with no further damage, and escaped in the second after giving up a leadoff double. The Racers got just one hit the rest of the way, suggesting how little margin for error there is for lineups against Abbott. Miss a chance early, and another may not come around until the next night.
"There are plenty of pitchers like Monica in this league," Racers coach Jake Schumann said after the game, rattling off the names of Cat Osterman, Danielle Lawrie and his own primary duo of Lisa Norris and Kristina Thorson. "You've got to show up with your 'A' game every single night. You've got to go to the plate with a plan, and if you don't have a plan, they're going to expose you. We had a lot of popups tonight. We got under a lot of balls, and she just kept throwing that riseball under our hands and we weren't able to stay on top of it."
There aren't actually a lot of hurlers quite like the tall lefty, who shared NPF Pitcher of the Year honors with Osterman after going 12-4 with a 0.80 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 96 innings during the regular season. But there are a lot of pitchers in NPF who aren't going to beat themselves, pitchers who don't an umpires calls or other misfortune linger in their minds.
Abbott wasn't always one of those pitchers. At times in college, the only hope teams had of beating her was getting in her head. Despite abundant opportunity for her to falter, that didn't happen Thursday night. She can overpower teams, as she did in throwing a perfect game against the Racers earlier this month. But she doesn't need to. Not anymore.v
"You get into almost an out-of-body experience sometimes," Abbott said of outings like the perfect game. "So coming back to them since that game, you definitely expect them to make more contact -- and then with the illegal pitches in the beginning [adding to the challenge]. I was like, 'OK, let's try and see how many ground ball outs I can get, how many popups I can get.' You can be just as effective using your defense as just striking people out.
"That's a huge lesson I think I've learned over my career."
It wasn't the best game of Abbott's career, but it was the kind of game that showed how much better any player, even one of the all-time greats, can become with experience.
It was also a game that showed how special it is for a player like Goler to play so far beyond her years.
"She's amazing," Brown said of Goler. "I can't be more proud of any of the kids on our team than her."
Of course, odds are Abbott wouldn't be far behind.