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Saturday, August 20, 2011
NPF Diamonds fall short but prove they belong

By Graham Hays

SULPHUR, La. -- In the biggest moment of the season, within sight of one of the biggest upsets imaginable in the National Pro Fastpitch league or any league, the game proved to be three outs too long for the NPF Diamonds. Reality trumped romanticism.

It somehow figures that the bottom of the seventh proved the undoing of a team without a home.

A traveling team that trained in Florida but played the "home" portion of its schedule in stadiums stretching from Calgary, Alberta to Lexington, N.C., the Diamonds entered a playoff series against the USSSA Pride as the fourth and final seed with a 6-32 record. In those 38 games, the offense hit a collective .166. The pitchers had a 5.21 team ERA.

The Diamonds played 15 regular-season games against the top-seeded Pride, the league powerhouse, and won two of them. They were outscored 119-37 by the Pride in those regular-season games, and when lightning halted play in the second inning of Thursday's opener in a best-of-three semifinal series, the Diamonds trailed the Pride 4-0.

But with three outs remaining following the resumption of play Friday, the scoreboard showed the Diamonds leading 7-5.

To understand what it meant for this team to be in that position, it's necessary to understand how it got there.

After winning the 2009 NPF championship as the Rockford (Ill.) Thunder, the franchise relocated to Nashville, Tenn. after a Knoxville-based ownership group backed out. They played the 2010 season as the Tennessee Diamonds.

Like many young leagues, NPF has endured its share of franchise instability, and losing the Diamonds franchise after losing teams in places like New England and Philadelphia would have spelled trouble.

"I think for that moment when you realized the folks at Tennessee were not going to see it through, I think there was a moment when we said, 'Holy Cow.'" NPF commissioner Cheri Kempf said. "But the owners immediately said it's important to keep that team propped up."

With the backing of a new anonymous investor this season, the league elected to experiment with a new business model, both bowing to the reality of franchise without a facility and hoping to open up new avenues of exposure. Rather than asking franchises like the Akron Racers and Chicago Bandits with well-established markets to give up home dates in order to showcase the league in neutral markets, the Diamonds became the league's permanent traveling team. They played their home games in minor- and independent-league baseball venues on modified fields normally used by teams like the Triple-A Round Rock Express.

"We had this team that really didn't have a home anyway, so it was a good opportunity to take a lot of the people up on inviting us out [to neutral sites]," Kempf said. "The other thing is I feel minor-league baseball programs are a natural expansion market for us. They have the venue, they have the infrastructure of the front office and the game day staff and marketing and all that.

"So I think it's a natural fit for them to add a women's fastpitch softball team, create some energy and expand the market."

Which sounds like a good plan, unless you're the player trekking all over North America for your home games, not to mention conducting clinics on the day of games in those unfamiliar locales. The players were told up-front what was in store for them, and coach Tim Kiernan found himself with a roster full of first- and second-year players who might not mind the vagabond lifestyle, or at least wouldn't be as likely to complain about it.

The team opened the season with three wins in a row, but the success was short lived. The Diamonds won just three more times in the regular season, at one point losing 15 games in a row. Laundry gets a little more difficult to do when you lose 15 in a row, particularly when many of the players went entire college seasons without losing 15 games.

"I'd be lying to you if I told you there weren't parts of the season that were just hard, where sometimes you want to crawl in a hole and get off the field because you're getting your butt kicked by 12 runs," outfielder Jami Lobpries said. "But if anything, because of the travel and because of the type of personalities we had on the team, the one thing we always had as players was each other's back."

A big part of the Texas A&M team that played for a national title in 2008, Lobpries was one of the few veteran holdovers for the Diamonds as fourth-year pro. And whatever toll the losses took, the chance to be a part of laying the groundwork for an entire sport had its benefits. The Diamonds may have lost 32 times in the regular season, but they didn't lose many clinics.

"That's what it's all about; that's when it's fun," Lobpries said. "When you get to see these little kids, and they love the Bianca Mejias & or they love the Angeline Quiocho because they're so good with kids. That's all they look at. We'd go into places, and they had no idea we were on a 10-game losing streak. But because we opened our arms to them, we talked to them, we taught them new things, we interacted with them; they thought we were superstars."

Which brings us back to Friday, when it looked for a time like the Diamonds might beat the real superstars and move within a game of playing for a championship. Trailing by four runs and facing Danielle Lawrie when play resumed on a blisteringly hot and humid afternoon, there was every reason to let their minds start drifting toward a rapidly approaching offseason.

The Diamonds instead came off the ropes throwing punches. After totaling five extra-base hits in 37 regular-season games, second baseman Kristin Schnake took Lawrie out of the park in the top of the fifth to cut the lead to 4-1. An inning later, the straws took their toll on the camel's back, as the Diamonds tied the game with a rally that began with an infield hit and continued with bloops, flares and, appropriately for the team that briefly called Round Rock home, Texas Leaguers.

"That was something that I hadn't seen a lot of, was them stringing together hits to really get that rally going," Pride star Jessica Mendoza said.

When Loryn Johnson finally added a thunderous exclamation point, ripping a double off Pride reliever Jordan Taylor to drive in two and give the Diamonds their first lead, it wasn't just the first-base visitors dugout buzzing.

"I loved every minute of it because we're not expected to win -- at all," Lobpries sad. "Why would we be?"

"That's why you play. We could have easily not been there, but that's why we're out there playing is because that's what it's all about. It's so fun. We got to their third pitcher. We just knocked out two of their pitchers."

The game ended cruelly for the Diamonds, with the winning run scored after strong-armed shortstop Mejia, the league's defensive player of the year, threw wide of first base on a routine grounder, allowing Francesa Enea to race home with the winning run.

After all of 30 or 40 minutes to gather themselves, the Diamonds couldn't solve Sarah Pauly in the second game and exited the playoffs after a 7-0 loss.

It might be a better story if the Diamonds held on for the win in the first game. It would certainly be easy to write about a plucky underdog that was rewarded for sticking together over the course of a long season. But the Diamonds proved over the course of a season they weren't the best team in the league. You don't always get to win because you try.

What you get is a chance to prove you belong. What you get is a chance to act like a champion. That's what the Diamonds did on the field. And that's what Mejia did after the game.

"It did get away from me," Mejia said of her throw. "It still hurts because I still take that as my fault. I made the last play. I know my teammates don't look at it that way, but I did make the last throw and it was high. I take full responsibility; it came out of my hand. There's no excuse for it. It shouldn't happen, not at this level."

The miracle didn't happen, but the Diamonds didn't need it to prove they belonged. And to prove the NPF sent the right group of people to represent it on the road.