It's gut check time for the U.S. softball team.

Posted: Thursday, September 21, 2000

SYDNEY - After losing twice in 36 hours-scoring one run in 25 innings-they look like anything but defending Olympic champions.

Whether it's physical fatigue or creeping doubt about their own invincibility, the team had that haunted looking after losing to China 2-0 in a 14-inning game that ended at 12:05 a.m. Thursday. It was the longest softball game in Olympic history. That followed a 2-1 loss to Japan in 11 innings.

Now after a few hours sleep they face Australia, the only team to beat them in the 1996 Olympics.

No longer are they destiny's darlings, the diamond queens, a lock for a gold medal. After winning 112 straight games in international play they have lost twice in a row and must wonder if they can even medal in the Sydney Olympics.

"We are miles away from what USA softball is all about," said Lisa Fernandez, the heart of the team, who has been in a deep hitting slump. "The mental mistakes, the physical mistakes. There is no excuse for it."

Now is when we find out what this team is all about. This is when they must look themselves in the mirror, check deep down inside and find out if they have what it takes to be a champion.

It's easy when you're on top. Everyone loves you. Everyone tells you you're great. Other teams fear you. Remember that glorious run to the gold medal in Atlanta? We all knew they would win it. Even after the stunning loss to Australia and the prospect of facing China three straight games, we knew they would win it.

But show a little chink in your armor and the doubters pour through. Three straight world championships? Defending Olympic gold medalists? That was then, this is now.

"I'm sure we've opened up a can of worms in terms of people thinking they can shut us down," said Fernandez. "We obviously couldn't have imagined this happening. We assumed we could be undefeated."

They started Olympic play with shutout wins over Canada and Cuba before losing the heartbreakers to Japan and China. The Americans could have won both games. In the 13th inning Wednesday Stacey Nuveman hit a rocket over the fence to left, but it barely curled foul. In the 11th inning Christie Ambrosi tried to score on a wild pitch but her slide stopped short of home plate and she was out.

The Chinese second baseman Yan Fang saved the game in the bottom of the 13th inning when she raced in to grab Ambrosi's dribbler that deflected off the pitcher and fired to first as she fell to nip Ambrosi and prevent a runner on third from scoring.

Then in the top of the 14th U.S. second baseman Jennifer McFalls grabbed a deflected grounder and threw it high and wide of first base, allowing two runs to score.

If any one of those plays, or several others, goes the other way the U.S. team wins and feels like it's back on track. Pitcher Michelle Smith gets 19 strikeouts, setting an Olympic record, and is a hero instead of a footnote. Instead these women are wondering if a second Olympic gold is meant to be.

"This is just another challenge I'll have to overcome," said Fernandez, who will be on the mound Thursday. The Americans have been using other pitchers, saving their ace Fernandez for when they really need her. They need her now, along with a few timely hits.

"Anything worth winning is worth fighting for," said Fernandez. "We'll have to keep fighting tooth and nail. It's not over. The most important part of the tournament is yet to be played. We just have to stay in the top four and no one will remember what our record is.

"Our team will break through this, and when it comes it will be an awesome feeling."

It had better come in the next three games, against Australia, New Zealand and Italy, or the only feeling will be one of shock and emptiness.

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