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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Farnworth Does It Alone for Matadors

With no relief in sight, senior carries load for pitching staff lacking another consistent starter.

April 21, 2001|PAIGE A. LEECH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NORTHRIDGE — Despite the hefty workload thrust upon her, pitcher Sarah Farnworth's right arm is not falling off.

Quite the contrary.

"She has a bionic arm," cracked Barb Jordan, a first-year assistant softball coach at Cal State Northridge.

Matador coaches and players are grateful Farnworth doesn't mind playing pack mule for the Matadors on their arduous journey toward an anticipated 10th consecutive NCAA Division I postseason berth.

"If she wants the ball and she's doing the job, I'm giving her the ball," Coach Janet Sherman said.

No pitcher has been given the ball more in the Big West Conference this season than Farnworth, who has started 27 of 44 games, made 37 appearances and logged 211 2/3 innings.

The shy senior who led Upland High to Southern Section championships in 1995 and '97 has started 13 of the last 16 games and doesn't expect a rest soon.

While Farnworth (19-11) has proved capable of carrying the Matadors, it wasn't supposed to be like this.

Like most of the nation's other No. 1 pitchers, she should have help.

But because Northridge (25-19, 9-3 in the Big West Conference) has failed to develop another consistent starter, it has been rendered an underdog whose fate rests with the durable Farnworth.

She is expected to get the final nine starts of the season, including all three games this weekend in a conference series against Long Beach State. The Matadors play at Long Beach in a doubleheader today and in a game on Sunday, before hosting first-place Cal State Fullerton in a three-game series April 28-29.

Northridge's lack of pitching depth can be traced to a top recruit who hasn't lived up to expectations and a junior college transfer best suited for spot relief.

Junior Summer Richardson pitched brilliantly in regional playoffs against Oklahoma last season and coaches assumed the touted recruit from tiny Boron had finally arrived.

Last fall, Northridge signed pitcher Kia Kennel of Pomona Diamond Ranch High with the intent of having her join Richardson in the 2002 rotation.

Kennel, a hard-throwing riseball pitcher, is everything Sherman looks for in an ace. Sherman hopes to rebuild the pitching staff to the level of the program's peak in the mid-1990s.

"She's very, very talented," Sherman said of Kennel. "She's got the mentality that we like. She wants the ball all the time."

Kennel works efficiently, averaging only 2.86 pitches per batter for Diamond Ranch this season. She is 14-4, has struck out 177 and walked 18 in 108 innings with a 0.39 earned-run average.

But less than three months after Sherman believed she had the missing piece to the puzzle in Kennel, the picture changed.

"At the beginning of February we thought, '[Richardson] is not working for us,' " Sherman said. "Then we get into March and we say, 'Hey, we have to sign another pitcher.'

"We were expecting more from Summer."

From opening day, Richardson (2-3) has struggled to throw strikes. The right-hander has issued 13 wild pitches and 14 walks in 32 2/3 innings while her ERA climbed to 4.96.

She has only one start in April, a 12-1 loss to UCLA.

Until Richardson can prove she can find the strike zone, she will remain in the lineup as designated player.

"She has so much talent," Sherman said. "I really, really believe that. I'm not writing her off. We need her."

Tanya Ledesma (4-4), a junior college transfer from Palomar, was recruited as a reliever but has nine starts.

"She has helped relieve the pressure quite a bit," Sherman said.

Ledesma (4-4), whose ERA is 4.45, gets sporadic work, but is getting less lately. She has pitched 4 1/3 innings in the last nine games.

Meanwhile, Farnworth, who has a 2.30 ERA and four saves, continues to shoulder the load.

"I don't mind," Farnworth said. "I always like to throw. I always have, even in travel ball and high school."

If her strength is compromised by the workload, she doesn't complain.

"I don't think it changes," she said of her strength. "I'm sure I'm physically tired, but I don't notice it when I'm out there."

So while Northridge coaches navigate through the season with the highest team ERA in school history, they're keeping one eye on playoffs and the other on possible pitching recruits.

They know as tough as it is relying on one pitcher, it could get a lot tougher next season with an untested freshman and a senior who hasn't lived up to her billing.

"Losing [Farnworth], we've got to go out and get a whole army to replace her," Jordan said.

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