SULPHUR, La. -- You can't get much farther from the international glitz and glamour of the Olympics than a hot, humid, lazy August afternoon in this corner of Louisiana near the Texas border, where the rice comes with gravy and much of the current morning conversation centers on the latest misadventures of Les Miles' LSU football team.
It feels as though some fringe location off the beaten track has become the center of the post-college softball universe, and it's easy to wonder if anyone out there knows this place is here at all.
But when Megan Wiggins takes off toward the left-field corner in pursuit of a line drive, leaves her feet at full gallop and catches the ball in an outstretched glove in the moment before losing her battle against gravity, it hits home: You can't get any closer to the heart of competition than this.
Punctuated by that highlight reel-worthy catch from Wiggins, the Chicago Bandits defeated the USSSA Pride 10-3 to sweep the best-of-three championship series in National Pro Fastpitch. It's the second title for the Bandits, who also won in 2008. Chicago is the first team to recapture the league's first-place prize, the Cowles Cup.
Bandits ace Monica Abbott claimed MVP honors after earning all four wins on Chicago's postseason march to the title, including a semifinal sweep of the Akron Racers and then the Pride, teams that finished ahead of the Bandits in the regular-season standings. Abbott pitched all but two innings during a four-day stretch when the heat index on the turf field rarely sank below triple digits, even as the hour approached midnight.
Every so often during Sunday's game, Abbott looked like someone who had thrown several hundred pitches in such a short span of time, but staked to a 5-0 lead in the bottom of the first, she didn't need to be perfect.
"Monica may be the most mentally tough girl I've ever met," Bandits catcher Shannon Doepking said. "She would have died out on the field for us. So whether heat, sunshine, rain, whatever it is, she's going to give you everything she's got."
But as good as Abbott was, the story of the championship series wasn't one of household names. Abbott notwithstanding, the Pride have most of those, from Olympic heroes such as Jessica Mendoza and Cat Osterman, to recent college stars such as two-time USA Softball Player of the Year Danielle Lawrie and two-time SEC Player of the Year Charlotte Morgan, to Alissa Haber and Ashley Charters, key figures for the gold medal-winning U.S. in last year's ISF World Championship.
The Pride had the players whose names were familiar to fans with even a passing interest in softball. They are the players you build a league around.
Under the stewardship of owner Bill Sokolis and general manager Aaron Moore, however, the Bandits are becoming the kind of team with which a league prospers.
"He brings in -- not the underdogs -- well, maybe the underdogs," seven-year veteran Vicky Galindo said of Sokolis. "He brings in players that are great, but maybe they don't get all this exposure on TV. He does his homework, and he knows the kids who have potential. And he brings in great athletes."
Great athletes like the rookie Wiggins, the occasionally overlooked third member of a star trio at the University of Georgia alongside fellow Bandit Alisa Goler, the NPF Rookie of the Year, and Taylor Schlopy, now on the Akron Racers. Wiggins was selected by the Bandits with the eighth pick in this year's draft and returned that vote of confidence with a home run and a triple in Sunday's finale, not to mention the diving catch in left.
"We wanted her here because of the energy she brought to Georgia," Bandits coach Darrick Brown said. "We wanted players like that, players that come play on the edge a little bit, get dirty on balls like tonight, go up and battle every at-bat.
"We talked probably three weeks ago, and I just said, 'Hey, bring that energy. Don't be afraid to be a leader. It doesn't matter; we're all a team.'"
Wiggins is a phenomenal athlete, a natural hitter and difference-making defender, but even if softball was still part of the Olympic program, she's also the kind of player who would likely have vanished from the public eye without a professional league. Now she's a player who softball fans should want to see.
That's equally true for players up and down the Bandits' roster, players less likely to get a pitch in the ribs but just as likely to help beat a star-studded team like the Pride. Sunday may prove to have been her professional farewell, but that's exactly the kind of player two-time NPF MVP Stacy May-Johnson has been for the Bandits. It's what Goler, outfielder Amber Patton and shortstop Tammy Williams are becoming. And it explains why the Bandits are the only team in major professional women's sports who play in a stadium built for them, Rosemont Field in Rosemont, Ill.
"I don't think that you stop growing as a softball player until mid-to-late 20s," Patton said. "A lot of these girls, they keep getting better every year and that's awesome to have the opportunity to do that. To play with the girls that I'm playing with on the field right now is just unbelievable. So many people would die to have this opportunity. I've met so many amazing people along the way and played against the best competition."
The stands weren't full Sunday afternoon and the attention won't come close to matching what the sport would have received in London next summer, but as Abbott pitched, Wiggins hit and the Bandits celebrated, it sure felt like softball had something to work with.