Softball hopes third time is the charm
· 2006 Softball: |
Senior pitching standout Cat Osterman doesn't hide her excitement about this season or her enthusiasm for this team.
"We've told the freshmen and sophomores," she begins, her voice rising, "to climb aboard the train with our goal and destination the World Series. When we made it in 2003, we were just glad to be there. Last year, we felt a big letdown the way it ended.
"This year, we believe we have a great chance to win it all. You know, we all were excited about the Tower being lit for what the football team did, but the softball team wants to light the Tower orange for the school, too."
If they are going to do so in 2006, you can be certain Olympic gold medal winner Osterman will be one reason why. And you will be able to get her insights on this journey through "," Osterman's blog available on TexasSports.com.
Osterman is a little Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan, Bonnie Blair, with a dash of Joan of Arc. She is a key player for a team that wound up third in the Women's College World Series in two of the last three years.
"That experience," says head coach Connie Clark of the WCWS finishes in 2003 and 2005, "sets the expectations."
Those expectations are again high as evidenced by Texas' No. 4 ranking in the ESPN.com/USA Softball Preseason Poll. That marks the highest preseason ranking ever for the Longhorns, eclipsing last year's previous high of No. 6 in the 2005 preseason poll.
"We've got tremendous talent at every position on paper," observed Marla Looper, who is in her seventh season as assistant coach, handling pitchers and catchers.
That talent has been there for Clark, who has enjoyed a decade of excellence as UT head coach since starting the softball program in 1996. She is 350-173-1 the past 10 years.
Clark, the 1987 Softball Player of the Year at Cal State Fullerton, has guided the Longhorns to three Women's College World Series, six NCAA Tournaments, four Big 12 Tournament championships and two Big 12 regular-season titles.
She led Texas to the NCAA Division I Women's College World Series top eight in 1998, which was only Texas' second varsity season, marking the quickest ascension to that level in NCAA history. Clark also may boast of having the National Player of the Year twice, six All-Americans, five Academic All-Americans and a plethora of All-Big 12 Conference honorees.
None of that matters today, as Clark reminds.
"You always approach the new season as a new year no matter how many players are back because there will be a different make-up from one year to the next," she explained. "We definitely have a lot of depth and we have valuable players back. And, they have that experience of last year."
Desiree Williams, Tina Boutelle, Meagan Denny, Chez Sievers, Amber Hall, Jacqueline Williams and Megan Willis, as well as Osterman, are among the players Clark has in mind when talking about that World Series experience.
"I could tell during the workouts this fall that there was a level of confidence there that no doubt came from the World Series experience last year," Clark said. "They all worked very hard in the fall and they also worked on the things we gave them to do during the Christmas break.
"They took care of their business, so when everyone got back on campus, we didn't miss a step in preparations for the season."
Actually, one facet of the preparations for this season took place several months ago with the hiring of assistant coach Corrie Hill, former head coach at the University of Texas-San Antonio.
If there was a weakness in last year's team, it was on offense. Clark recognized it and in addition to hiring Hill, Clark also made offense the priority during the fall workouts.
"We have to be able to put up significant numbers," Clark said. "So we made a commitment to offense. Hiring Corrie showed our commitment."
Hill, who had been at UTSA since 1998, had the credentials in the area of hitting. The Roadrunners won the last three NCAA home run titles, including an NCAA record 1.83 homers per game in 2004. Last year, her team finished No. 2 in the nation in team batting average (.335) and runs per game (6.28).
"In mid-July, Connie called and asked if I would like to be a member of her staff," Hill said. "And I thought about it for maybe two seconds, if that long. What a great opportunity this was."
Hill says she didn't re-invent the wheel with regard to hitting, noting that there are basics in the mechanics that she has learned through the years.
What she also has learned is that if hitting isn't 90 percent mental, it is at least 85 percent.
"A hitter has to believe that when she comes to the plate that there is nothing a pitcher can throw that she can't hit," Hill said. "They have to believe in any situation at any time in the game against anybody, they can get a hit.
"And, as I have told the players, the difference between a pop-up and a home run is a fraction of an inch. What I want them to do after a pop-up is to say, 'I just missed it' and not say, 'I failed.' Because, they did just miss it and they didn't fail if they embrace that idea."
The team embraced Hill from the outset.
"She quickly became a member of our family," Osterman said.
And speaking of Osterman…
With due respect to all on the team, most eyes are on Osterman, who concludes an incredible career that featured a gold medal at the Olympics in 2004.
"Cat has been doing it from day one here at UT," Clark said of her ace. "She always had played at a high level. I think this year what will jump out at people is her mixing of speeds."
Adds Looper, "Dominant…competitive…gee, I don't know that there are any new words to describe Cat. Anytime she sees a challenge, she handles it. She is remarkable.
"To me, the difference from four years ago -- well, there is a young woman out there now and not a little girl. She is not a raw talent, but a refined, complete player."
Looper paused and then began to laugh, as she thought of a new word for Osterman.
"Grandma," Looper said. "We call her grandma, since she has been around so long."
Osterman also feels as though it has been a long time.
"And I am sure if I feel as though it has been a long time, some of the coaches on the other teams are saying, 'Oh my, is she still here? Shouldn't she be gone by now?'"
No one who loves Texas ever would want her gone and it isn't just her career 0.54 earned run average, 57 shutouts and 1,635 strikeouts.
Osterman had displayed a maturity and class that is synonymous with UT Athletics.
"I'm excited about this team," Osterman said. "When we first made the made World Series, we were glad just to be there. The second time we all felt a big letdown by how it ended. This time, we're going to get there and win it. We've told the freshman and sophomores to climb aboard the train to winning the World Series."
Asked how winning the World Series would compare with the Olympic gold medal, Osterman was refreshingly candid in her response.
"Nothing can top the gold medal, I have to tell you that," she began. "But winning the Women's College World Series wouldn't be too far behind."
Certainly, there is no reason to think that can't happen.
"I see a loose intensity with this team," Clark says. "This is a great group that has worked hard and that has the ability. They are pretty anxious to see what they can do."
Beginning February 10, all will have the chance to see what they can do.