Pitchers Samantha Ford, Lisa Longaker and Michelle Phillips are neither big nor tough-looking. In fact they appear extremely feminine. But forget the femininity when they step to the mound.
The dynamic trio, donning their game faces, paced the UCLA softball team to another regional title and a trip to the College World Series this week in Omaha.
Ford, a blonde sophomore who looks like a prom queen, leads the Bruin staff with the lowest earned run average--.023--and a 15-3 record. She has 134 strike outs in 121 innings.
She's regarded as one of the top pitchers in Division I softball by UCLA Coach Sharron Backus.
The 5-7 Ford pitched a shutout against Long Beach State to give the Bruins the Western Regional title.
"I feel a lot stronger this year with my pitching," she said. "I know I have more control.
"Last year I'd make an error and I'd freak out. Not this year."
Ford managed to have a successful season despite being hospitalized for mononucleosis, which caused her to miss a month at the start of the season. She's also had a nagging wrist injury for most of the season.
"She's still improved a great deal from last year, even though she missed out with her sickness and some injuries," said assistant coach Sue Enquist.
"The thing with Sam is that she can throw them all," said Enquist. "She's got a hard rise ball and she can throw down. "She may not throw as hard, but she mixes them up real well."
The second blonde on the Bruin pitching staff is Phillips, who ended with a 14-6 record last season and holds a 14-1 record this year with 51 strikeouts and a .50 ERA.
The 5-5 sophomore completed 13 of 15 games and had the fewest walks on the staff.
"Our pitching this year has really taken the pressure off us offensively," said Enquist. "Our staff is solid and two-thirds of our pitchers have one year of college experience under their belt."
But the Bruins' best thrower --with one of the meanest fast balls in the NCAA this season-- didn't have any collegiate experience when she started the season.
Longaker, from Mayfair High in Lakewood, broke the school record for the most wins by a freshman with her 17-4 record.
That came after UCLA's 1-0 victory over the 49ers in the first game of regionals when Longaker took over the mound, striking out seven batters, including the first three she faced.
"Lisa has done an outstanding job in situations with lots of pressure," said Enquist. She has really responded as a leader this year."
Longaker holds a .38 ERA with 179 strikeouts, two saves and two no-hitters.
"She's just a maturing type of pitcher who has the ability to have variety," said Backus. "She throws hard and has a great rise and low rise."
The 19-year-old redhead was one of the nation's most highly recruited high school pitchers who was a four-time All-CIF selection and twice MVP.
She also pitched for the Inland City Raiders, the senior girls national champion team.
"What makes her so good is that she has such a good repertoire of pitches," said Enquist.
The latest addition to the Bruin pitching squad is famous for gunning balls, a successful rise ball and a very deceiving change-up.
With a combination of strong hitting--which they lacked last year--and more experienced pitchers, the Bruins managed to end the regular season with a record-breaking number of wins (46-8) after shutting out the 49ers twice last weekend in regional play.
"The overall maturity of the team is much greater this year," said Backus. "Also, our pitchers last year were young and a little unexperienced at that."
That was a unusual because UCLA has always been known as a strong pitching team. Its stock of good pitchers includes three-time All-American Tracy Compton and two-time All-American Debbie Doom.
In fact, the Bruins used to be known as the "Debbie and Tracy" team--until last season, the first in four years for the Bruins without their star throwers.
"Last year was really hard because everyone compared us to them," said Ford. "It really helped that Sue and Sharron told us, 'We know you're not Tracy and Debbie,' but we still felt it."
Under the leadership of 12th-year coach Backus, the Bruins have brought home three of the five contested NCAA softball titles and have been to the College World Series in seven of the last nine seasons, due mostly to strong pitching.
The Bruin pitching staff was crippled after Compton and Doom left, and they had to rely on two freshman to fill in some big shoes for the 1986 season.
"Anytime you lose two pitchers like Tracy and Debbie, you're at a loss," said Enquist. "That was really a crutch for us last year and as a result we never really jelled as a team."
It was that loss on the mound, the fact that the team was only hitting .249 and "attitude problems" among team members that kept the Bruins from having a successful season and going to the World Series.