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Saturday, August 20, 2011
Making the most of a second chance

By Graham Hays

SULPHUR, La. -- Break them down into their component parts, and the sights and sounds of softball are what they are for a reason. There is a reason a rise ball rises, why an outfielder flings her body parallel to the earth in pursuit of a ball on a particular trajectory, and why cleats make such an unmistakable noise as they traverse paved ground.

For all the poetry and passion ascribed to it, softball is at heart a game of simple physics. And yet it doesn't take a master's degree in that scientific field to explain the hold the game has on those who play it. Even if, like Chicago Bandits third baseman Stacy May-Johnson, you happen to have a master's from the University of Louisville.

"Basically, I look at it as I'm doing the same thing I've been doing since I was eight years old, and I still love doing it the way I did when I was eight years old," said May-Johnson, 27. "And I feel like as long as I have the opportunity to do that and that's my outlook toward it, I'm comfortable continuing to play."

So it is that she's here in Sulphur, one of the comparatively few players in National Pro Fastpitch closer to her 10-year college reunion than her commencement. She's hitting cleanup for the Bandits in the postseason less than three weeks after rejoining the league following a stint as the backbone of a young U. S. national team that won the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City. And she's doing all of it in the year after she announced her retirement.

If it's a farewell tour, it's going to leave everyone but opposing pitchers wanting more.

"She's just an incredible person to play with because she's so genuine, she's so to the point," Bandits teammate Tammy Williams said. "You always know exactly what Stacy May is going to bring to the table. She's just reliable. She is that incredible teammate that you always want to be around and want on the field by your side -- and never against you."

The opportunity that pulled May-Johnson out of retirement following her second NPF MVP campaign in 2010 came courtesy of Team USA. At this time last year, she had an inkling that she might finally get a chance to crack a roster that had been impenetrable despite her professional success. But a coaching change in the national program created more uncertainty. She kept herself in playing shape and readiness. She settled in as a full-time assistant coach at her alma mater, the University of Iowa, after a stint at Louisville. And when the tryout invite came this spring, she made the most of it.

On a team largely comprised of players with college eligibility remaining and recent graduates, May-Johnson was the experienced hand. She insists that when she plays, she plays; when she coaches, she coaches, and never the twain shall meet. But after losses against Japan in the Canada Cup and an early upset loss against Canada in the World Cup, the Americans looked like a mature group, bouncing back for a title.

Williams wasn't on that team after she elected to focus on NPF, but she's seen the same May-Johnson effect up close.

"She's so good at playing the game and so smart in how she plays that you would be crazy not to watch her and watch what she does and how she performs and how she gets ready to perform," Williams said.

Jordan Taylor, now an opponent with the USSSA Pride, was alongside May-Johnson on the national team this summer. She didn't know her beforehand, but didn't take long to understand May-Johnson.

"She's a quiet player, that's the best way to describe her," Taylor said. "She's not a showboat whatsoever. She doesn't do anything extra to draw attention to herself; she just plays the game. She's very observant, she's a very big student of the game. Within an at-bat, you can see her mind turning. She knows exactly what the pitcher is going to throw her. I think why she's so successful is she knows how to read pitchers and read people."

May-Johnson has an analytical mind, displaying attention to detail and a disdain for needless hyperbole and emotional interference. You begin to get a picture of someone who probably wasn't destined to study 19th century French Romantic poetry.

She graduated from Iowa with degrees in accounting and physics. An accounting internship convinced her she wasn't cut out for cubicle life, but she was close enough to the degree that she figured she might as well finish. And although some college students construct schedules around keeping Friday afternoons free, May-Johnson was able to switch her focus to physics, because she had previously fibbed about intending to major in it, just to gain access to higher-level courses because she enjoyed them.

While a mind for math and science does not necessarily indicate a particular personality profile, it's easy to imagine May-Johnson employing the scientific method to do her Christmas shopping.

"When I have a problem I can't solve, I'm really, really tenacious about it," May-Johnson said of her interest in physics. "Most people, they'll pick up a problem, they'll look at it for five minutes and say, 'I can't solve it,' and throw their hands in the air and be done. When you go into high-level physics, undergraduate and graduate-level physics, you can't do that. You're going to sit there and stare at it for four or five hours and make no progress, and then all of a sudden, something is going to come to you, and you make a little bit of progress and you start to go from there.

"It really requires that tenacity and patience. I guess maybe that's why it's a good fit for me."

Both traits also make her the poster child for National Pro Fastpitch. As much as famous faces such as Cat Osterman, Danielle Lawrie, Jessica Mendoza, Natasha Watley and others drive the league's public image, its survival and sustainability requires players like May-Johnson, very good college players who become great players when given the time and opportunity to fulfill their athletic potential. A successful league must be able to create stars, not just give existing ones a place to play.

It has succeeded at least once already.

"I feel like I've gotten better every year since I left college, and in college, too," May-Johnson said. "I guess that's something you can be proud of, right? It's something that you improve on every year. It's not necessarily where you start but where you finish, and this has sort of given me a forum to get better, to learn how to play softball -- not just be a swinger but be a hitter, not just be a person with a glove but to be a defender. This was really the place where I learned to do all that. This was the reason I got a chance to play for [Team] USA."

Once she is finished with the Bandits, her focus will be on this fall's Pan-American Games. But the World Championships loom on the horizon. With the demise of Olympic softball, next summer's tournament is the biggest prize in the sport. May-Johnson has clearly earned a place on that team if she wants it, but the eight-year-old in her still has some lobbying to do.

"I have to have a very candid conversation with my boss and my husband about tryouts in January, whether or not I can commit to another summer of this," May-Johnson said. "And if they give me the OK, and I feel like that's what I want to do, then I'm committed to trying out if they want be back."

If it's all the same to the University of Iowa and her husband, softball wouldn't mind at least one more year with her.