SANTA ANA — Jennifer Lee, 13, throws a softball fast and hard and with more than a little pride that she can do it better than boys years older than she is.
When she and her teammates play pickup games at school, some of the boys "get mad and jealous that we play better than them. They're just amazed and say: 'You throw like a boy,' " she said.
Boys will be boys. But now Jennifer and her teammates on the Orange County Firecrackers, a 14-and-under girls' fast-pitch team, have their sights set on a far more formidable task: winning a national championship.
The team is trying to raise the money it will need to travel to the national tournament in Midland, Tex., in August. Meanwhile, team members are training for a series of qualifying games in Madison, Ala., coming up in a few weeks.
At a recent practice, all 11 girls played in sweat suits to get used to the heat and humidity that they will encounter during their upcoming games in the South.
"It's hot. I don't like it very much," said Dara Marzolo, 13, who lives in Orange.
Although the frequent games and practices have their drawbacks, she said, she would never give up softball.
"I'm pretty devoted to it. You miss a lot of things socially, but it's worth it to keep playing," she said.
During the 2 1/2-hour practice, the players sprinted through running and sliding drills. One by one, the girls swung out wide as they rounded first base, then slid feet-first to tag second base, kicking up a cloud of dust.
Later, pitcher Valerie Kerbs, 14, took the mound. Her left arm blurred as she hurled an underhand pitch that shot the ball so fast it barely dropped before hitting the catcher's glove with a loud smack.
Valerie, who lives in Fullerton, said that she is looking forward to the out-of-state competition.
"I feel kind of excited. It's a bigger tournament, one we have to win," she said. She also expects the team to make it to the Texas games with no trouble and possibly take the national title. "We're a good team. We practice hard, and it really shows when we play," she said.
Manager Dale Ogden agreed.
He recalled a pickup game the team played against some male college students last Fourth of July. The men started off playing easy with the 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds, he said, "but six outs later, they were having to press themselves to keep from losing. People go: 'God, I can't believe girls can do this.' But these girls can really perform."
Ogden said his team is one of 20 that compete in Southern California, including teams in San Diego and Riverside as well as in Irvine and Garden Grove.
By the time his players graduate from the 14-and-under league, they will have had the bulk of training required to win college scholarships and progress to international competition when softball becomes an official Olympic sport in 1996. Already, most of the Firecrackers have been playing for five years or more.
"My life is basically surrounded by softball," said Alicia Dowland, 13. "It's what I do every weekend. I would do anything to play. I would break my leg for it."
The games are frequent, and practice is constant, Ogden said. Since January, the Firecrackers have played more than 60 games. Twice a week, the girls practice together--although most also practice with their families at home and a few also play in other leagues as well.
Ogden said the team is seeking donations to offset the $9,000 cost of the trip to Texas for the national championships. Donations may be sent to the Orange County Firecrackers, 59 Bennington, Irvine, Calif. 92720.