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SPORTS EXTRA: SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES

Softball

Defending Champion U.S. Softball Team Has a Mix of Old and New, Which Makes It the Team to Beat

September 10, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT

* OVERVIEW--After winning a gold medal in the sport's Olympic debut at Atlanta in 1996, what can the U.S. team do for an encore?

Only a 2-1, 10-inning loss to Australia in round-robin play marred the team's record at Atlanta. The women rebounded from that loss to defeat China three times, the last time in the gold-medal game. The gap between the U.S. and the rest of the world has since narrowed, as more women have taken up the sport and more countries have devoted resources to women's programs, but the U.S. is favored to win again.

The U.S. lineup is so powerful that longtime U.S. mainstay Dot Richardson, invited back to the team after a 2 1/2-year absence, was shifted from shortstop to second base to accommodate the booming bat of 23-year-old Crystl Bustos. Dr. Dot, as Richardson is known since she finished her orthopedic surgery studies, batted .273 at Atlanta with three home runs--including the decisive one in the gold-medal game--and seven runs batted in. One of eight players returning from the 1996 squad, Richardson will turn 39 in Sydney.

With Richardson leading off, the U.S. lineup gives pitchers no respite. Center fielder Laura Berg batted .385 at last year's Pam Am Games. Lisa Fernandez, who plays third base when she's not overpowering hitters from the mound with her fearsome rise ball, batted .348 at Atlanta with one home run. Fernandez pitched five consecutive perfect games during the team's pre-Olympic tour, striking out all 21 batters in one game.

Bustos, who batted .439 at the Pan Am Games and has good range at short, plays for the Akron Racers of the fledgling Women's Pro Softball League. First baseman Sheila Douty is a member of the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame and was voted to the Pacific 10 Conference All-Decade team.

* OTHERS TO WATCH--Australia, the bronze medalist at Atlanta, is again expected to contend for gold. Joanne Brown, whose home run defeated the U.S. at Atlanta, played with Fernandez at UCLA. The Japanese team is superb defensively and is considered a potential medal winner after defeating Australia several times in the last year. China will be looking to avenge its 1996 losses to the U.S.

* BEST STORY--Home-continent advantage helped the U.S. in 1996 and may do the same for Australia in these Games. The new Blacktown stadium will seat 8,000, many of them pulling for the home team. Sydney is likely to be the last major softball tournament for Richardson, who plans to specialize in sports medicine, and she's likely to be a sentimental favorite.

* SOUTHLAND ATHLETES ON U.S. TEAM--Dot Richardson, 39, UCLA; Jen Brundage, 27, Irvine High, UCLA; Laura Berg, 25, Santa Fe High; Crystl Bustos, 23, Canyon Country; Sheila Douty, 38, Taft High, UCLA; Lisa Fernandez, 29, Long Beach St. Joseph's, UCLA; Stacy Nuveman, 22, St. Lucy's Priory, UCLA; Leah O'Brien-Amico, 26, Chino Hills; Christie Ambrosi, 23, UCLA..

* KEY DATES--Sept. 24, semifinals. Sept. 26, gold-medal game.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Fast Fact

* During the U.S. team's pre-Olympic tour, Dot Richardson once left a game to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation on a stricken fan. After tending to him, she returned to the field.

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