US team prepares for gold medal game rematch

OKLAHOMA CITY – For the U.S. softball team, the first chance for revenge may not be so sweet.

As the Americans prepare to play on their home soil for the first time since the Olympics, there are few players remaining from the team that lost to Japan in the gold medal game in Beijing last summer.

Ten of the 18 players on this year’s U.S. roster are rookies when it comes to international experience. Seven players who played in at least the last two Olympics have retired and star outfielder Jessica Mendoza is taking time off for the birth of her first child.

When new head coach Jay Miller of Mississippi State goes to fill out his lineup card for Thursday’s World Cup of Softball opener against the Netherlands, he won’t even have former Olympians at every position

“It’s a very different time for USA Softball in that respect with so much new blood and so many new faces,” Miller said Tuesday.

Count Miller among the newbies, too. He takes over the reins from Mike Candrea, who guided the U.S. team for eight years in the run-up to a dominating gold medal victory in Athens and the silver medal in Beijing.

Miller is off to a perfect start, going 12-0 in the Canada Cup immediately before making the trip to Oklahoma City for the six-team tournament. The Netherlands, Italy, Australia, Canada and Japan-without ace Yukiko Ueno-join the Americans in the World Cup field.

Without many of the principals from the Olympics competing on either sideline, the tournament billed as being a “Beijing Rematch” will be more of a chance for the U.S. to build for the future than to get a true shot at redemption.

“Every team establishes its own identity over time, and I think that we’re in the process of doing that now,” said Miller, the coach at Mississippi State. “I don’t really feel like we’re there yet. We still have a long way to go.”

The turnover was to be expected with seven years left before the sport even has a chance of returning to the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee removed softball from the Olympic program for the London Games in 2012 and will decide later this year whether it will bring it back in 2016.

Veterans Laura Berg, Crystl Bustos, Tairia Flowers, Lovieanne Jung and Kelly Kretschman all left their cleats on the field in Beijing while Stacey Nuvemen and Jenny Topping waited until after the Games were over to retire.

That leaves pitchers Jennie Finch and Cat Osterman, shortstop Natasha Watley and utility player Lauren Lappin-an alternate in 2004-as the only two-time Olympians on the roster for the World Cup.

“It’s fun, it’s exciting. There’s a sense of youthfulness and just excitement over every new thing,” Finch said. “It’s pretty neat to experience these young girls coming out of college and being able to live their dreams out wearing the USA uniform for the first time and wearing the red, white and blue.

“It’s a great mix, it’s a fun mix and it’s been a blast, just the newness of it all.”

Newcomers include pitchers Katie Burkhart from Arizona State’s 2008 NCAA title winners and Stacey Nelson from this year’s runner-up, Florida. Kaitlin Cochran, Burkhart’s former Sun Devils teammate, joins the Alabama duo of Brittany Rogers and Ashley Holcombe and Stanford teammates Alissa Haber and Ashley Hansen in the rookie class.

“The big goal is to win the gold medal every time we take the field. That’s ultimately what we’re about as a program,” Miller said. “We want to continue that and, more importantly, we want to get better individually for our players and we want to get better as a team, bottom line.”

The long-term aim of the U.S. team is preparing for the world championships next summer, also in Oklahoma City. In October, they should find out whether the Olympics in 2016 will be a reality.

That doesn’t mean the Americans intend to take lightly the fact that they’ve been knocked from their perch atop the softball world by Japan after winning the sport’s first three Olympic gold medals.

“Any time you put that USA on your chest and you compete for your country, that’s what becomes most important,” Miller said. “In every competition we go, it’s not like we’re thinking, ‘Oh, we’re not in the Olympics for 2012 so it doesn’t mean anything.’ Every time you take the field, it means something.”

The Associated Press