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Sonoma State softball team keeps its eyes on the prize


ROHNERT PARK

When the moment comes for pitcher Amanda Llerena, and it comes a lot with Sonoma State's softball team, when expectations rise to suffocating levels, Llerena steps off the pitching rubber, turns around and looks for the place that lowers her heart rate.

It's there, on the ground, just two letters: "GP." Before each inning she pitches, Llerena takes her right hand and scratches those letters into the dirt. "GP" stands for grandparents.

"I like to play for someone," said Llerena, who has a 13-5 record and a 1.86 ERA. "It helps me relax. It gets my mind off things."

There, in that last sentence, Llerena unknowingly summed up everything her team was, is and will be this season. The Seawolves will go as far as their ability to accept imperfection, mistakes, being human. Those were the "things" that Llerena spoke of. Those "things" are the result of a singular goal, one that was vocalized on the first day of practice and has been carried through their first 40 games of the season.

"We want to win the national championship," said pitcher Samantha Lipperd, a two-time All-American.

It is not a boast of arrogance or one without foundation. The Seawolves are loaded, which their 31-9 record might indicate, not to mention they are ranked 17th in the country. They are batting .329 as a team, with six players hitting .300 or better, first baseman Ali Palermo at the top with a .411. They have a team ERA of 1.70 and average more than a strikeout an inning (284 in 275?). There are no cupcake outs. There are no cupcake pitchers.

"I've told them many times," head coach Jennifer Bridges said, "that opportunities like this come once in a blue moon. We have the perfect combination of everything. We can pitch, hit, play defense, play smart."

Ah, there's that word again that pops up all the time when discussing SSU softball: Perfect. When a team has this much talent, and when that talent is obsessed with winning, like with every breath they take, there's only one thing that can stop them.

"Our own heads," Bridges said.

Softball is a failure sport and the lesson in patience and perspective is one being taught now as much as it was around 150 years ago when baseball was invented. Palermo is one of the best hitters in college softball and yet she fails to get a hit nearly 60 percent of the time. Lipperd was SSU's Female Athlete of the Year in 2011-12, the CCAA's Pitcher of the Year, is capable of throwing a no-hitter every time she winds up — and yet she has given up 104 hits, including nine homers. All of which a pitcher of her caliber should shrug off. But Lipperd is a perfectionist who is working very hard not to be one.

"I try to be realistic," Lipperd said. "There's a lot of self-talking out there for me. We have to go out there and not try so hard. Just go out there and have fun."

The young women do have the light side and do search for any and all opportunities. The song from the movie "Grease" — "You're the One That I Want" — has been sung from the bench when a hitter approaches the plate. When a teammate accidentally trips or stumbles a chorus of hoots immediately follows. They know the value of letting the air out of their balloon.

Enter Carrie Cheadle into the mix. Cheadle is a sports psychologist from Petaluma who works with the players once a month. Cheadle takes a player into a quiet room, asks her to visualize success, whether it was a good at-bat, or the perfect pitch, or the nice catch. See what went right. See how it felt. See the focus. See the tunnel vision.

"It's like this," Bridges said as she created a small circle with her hands over her eyes, looking out through a tiny opening. Everything else? Might as well not be there. Last at-bat? Gone. Forgotten. Last pitch? Same thing. It's a work in progress, Bridges said, and she'll see how much progress has been made this weekend.

SSU travels to Humboldt for a doubleheader Friday and a doubleheader Saturday. Humboldt, 33-11, is ranked seventh in the nation. Humboldt beat SSU, 1-0, last Sunday at the Tournament of Champions, so the trick for Sonoma State is not to make that defeat or that opponent bigger than one game.

"Humboldt is a good team and the games will be close," Bridges said. "But I feel we are a better team, top to bottom. Yes, they can hit home runs, but we play the game in all aspects."

Of course, Bridges understands that's just her opinion and opinions are like cell phones. Everybody has one. The score, however it is determined, will either support or destroy that opinion. That's why she can't wait for the games to start. She believes her team is ready, has perspective, has patience.

"Take flight or fight?" Bridges said. "That's what all players have to decide."

A team that believes it can be a national champion doesn't flee. It doesn't capitulate. It also doesn't ignore the facts.

Humboldt has lost 11 times this season.

As Bridges might say, it doesn't have to stop there.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.