NORMAL, Ill. – For the second time in as many weekends, Team NPF gave the US National Softball Team all it could handle, but for the second game in a row, the Red, White & Blue came away victorious. Despite a spirited effort from Team NPF, the group fell to the USA 6-0 Saturday afternoon at ChampionsPark.
“I was proud of their effort today and last weekend,” said NPF co-head coach Patty Gasso. “There were some things along the way that hurt us, but at the same time, trying to throw the best team out there in a short amount of time is difficult. But we competed and we hit the ball hard at people. It wasn’t our best offensive day, but it was a pleasure to coach them and these ladies represented the NPF extremely well.”
After a quiet first inning for both teams, Team NPF threatened in the second inning. Amber Jackson (Washington Glory) led off with a single to right field and moved to second base on Carri Leto-Martin’s (New England Riptide) ground out. But that would be as far as Jackson would get in the inning as the NPF couldn’t get a timely hit.
The USA got on the board in its half of the second inning. Lovieanne Jung drove in a run with a bloop single down the right field line and then Tairia Flowers drove in two runs with a double to the gap to make it 3-0.
Team NPF didn’t give up and fought right back in the third inning. Chelsea Spencer (Philadelphia Force) led off with a single to center field and then with two out, Tonya Callahan (Rockford Thunder) drove a ball to deep left field off USA starter Jennie Finch. Unfortunately a breeze blowing in from that direction kept the ball in the yard and allowed Finch to escape unscathed.
A pair of NPF errors to lead off the fourth inning led to two USA runs, only one of which was earned and the USA got its final run of the game on a solo home run by Crystl Bustos in the fifth inning.
The play of the game came in the third inning when NPF left fielder Kristen Zaleski (Rockford Thunder) tracked down a Jessica Mendoza foul fly ball and made a full-out, diving catch to bring the large crowd to its feet. Zaleski, who was shading Mendoza toward center field, had to cover about 30 yards before lying out to make the spectacular catch worthy of ESPN’s “Web Gems” highlight section.
“She is one of the grittiest players I’ve come across in a long time and it’s just fun to watch her play. As soon as the ball was hit, you knew she was going for it and it just seemed like she ran forever to get there and never gave up on it. She’s a gamer and it wasn’t surprising she made that catch.”
“I knew it was foul and had a chance to lay out for it,” Zaleski said. “I knew if I caught it, then great, but if not, it was going to be foul and wasn’t going to hurt us so I thought I’d just go all-out. You’ve always got to dive for it if you get the chance.”
Team NPF was led in the circle by recent Women’s College World Series MVP Katie Burkhart (Philadelphia Force), who pitched the final 2.2 innings of the game. She allowed one run on three hits and a walk with five strikeouts. Desiree Serrano (Washington Glory) got the start and went 2.0 innings. She gave up three runs on four hits with a strikeout. Kristina Thorson (Chicago Bandits) pitched 1.1 innings, giving up two runs (one earned) on just one hit and a walk.
“Everything was working pretty well today,” Burkhart said. “[Catcher] Savannah [Brown, Rockford Thunder] did a great job of mixing pitches and keeping them on their toes. I hung the one pitch a little bit to Bustos and any time you do that, it’s what you expect. I’m having so much fun in this league with my Philadelphia team and to play with this team was also really exciting.”
Finch went the distance for Team USA, allowing two hits and three walks with eight strikeouts. With the win, the USA improves to 44-1 on its Bound 4 Beijing Tour, which will wrap up next month before the team heads to the Olympic Games.
Team NPF represented itself well in defeat, putting five base runners on and hitting several balls deep and all over in the park. But most of its hard-hit balls were right at USA players, ending potential threats.
“A little wind here or there would’ve helped the cause,” Gasso said. “But we sent a few deep and they made some pretty good defensive plays to keep us off the bags. But we just didn’t any timely hits when we needed them. If we could have turned around a couple of plays around, defensively, ourselves it would have been a little different ball game. If I could have my wish, it would be to have this group together for a month cause then I think we could really do some serious damage. But I think we put up a fight and USA Softball respects us for that.”
These two teams met a week ago in Oklahoma City. Team NPF took a 5-1 lead – the largest against the USA this tour – before falling 10-8 in a wild and exciting contest.
In both of these games, players from NPF had to leave their respective professional team mid-series and travel to help form this all-star squad and represent the league. Members of the 15-player team will now resume action with their respective professional teams.
National Pro Fastpitch is headquartered in Denver, Colo. The league, created to give elite female fastpitch players the opportunity to pursue a professional career in their chosen sport, has operated since 1997 under the names Women’s Pro Fastpitch (WPF) and Women’s Pro Softball League (WPSL).