Lisa Fernandez Pitches, Hits Team USA to Olympic Gold

Aug. 23, 2004

AP Sports Writer

ATHENS, Greece (AP) - They leave the Olympics with gold medals for the thirdstraight time, olive wreaths crowning their heads and a lasting legacy that'sjust a shade off perfection.

The U.S. softball team not only was the real American Dream Team of theseOlympics, it was the most dominant team of the Athens Games - and maybe anyother.

'This is the best one I've ever coached,' Mike Candrea said. 'It'sprobably the best team I'll ever see. I think it will go down as a team peoplewill talk about for a long time.'

Displaying unmatched power on the mound, around the basepaths and in thebatter's box, the United States won gold with a 5-1 victory over Australia onMonday, completing a nearly untarnished romp through an Olympic tournament theAmericans made their own.

Lisa Fernandez's four-hitter in the final was her fourth victory of thegames, beating Tanya Harding and getting ample help from Crystl Bustos, who hittwo homers.

The one run Australia scored in the sixth inning was the only earned run shegave up the whole tournament, a miniscule flaw considering the Americans stilloutscored the field 51-1 in their nine games.

They also outhit it, outran it, and outclassed it while virtually rewritingthe Olympic softball record book.

When she got the final out, Fernandez flung her glove high into the air andwas swarmed by her teammates, who piled on one after another like kids playingtackle football in the yard.

The pitcher also batted .545 in her third Olympics, leaving little doubtthat she's still the game's best all-around player.

'Our whole team came together today,' said Bustos, a two-time Olympian.'The bunting, the people getting on base, the hard-hit balls. Our defense wasthere. You can't beat it. The pitching was phenomenal. It's the best Olympicteam I ever played on.'

From their opening-game rout of Italy, to their gut-wrenching win over Japanand capped by their third win over the Aussies, the Americans showed - that atleast in the softball world - they are alone on the diamond.

'This is the greatest feeling in the world,' outfielder Kelly Kretschmansaid. 'We made it look easy but every game was tough.'

Australia coach Simon Roskvist said there wasn't a tougher opponent.

'We had to play fantastic softball to beat them and we didn't,' Roskvistsaid. 'I don't think there could have been a tougher opponent.'

Women's softball has never been played better, at least not since it becamean Olympic sport in 1996. However, it's guaranteed a spot in the lineup onlythrough 2008.

'Softball is dominated by the U.S.A.,' said catcher Stacey Nuveman, whohomered. 'And that's just the way it is.'

These women were a special unit, indeed, not just as a team but as a groupunited by a common goal and even more so by last month's death of Candrea'swife, Sue.

'It's been definitely an emotional thing for coach and it's definitely anemotional thing for the team,' Bustos said. 'Sue was with us the whole way.'

Candrea drew courage from them during the toughest time of his life, andseconds after his players won their medals, they were there for him again.

They hugged their coach. They cried in his arms. They hoisted him in the airto chants of 'U-S-A, U-S-A.'

'I thanked them all for the greatest moment of my life,' he said. 'I willnever forget the ride they put me on in these Olympic games.'

Nor will anyone forget this team - one that extended its winning streak to79 games.

Four years ago in Sydney, the United States barely captured gold. This time,it was just a blink from perfection.

Fernandez, as always, led the way.

The right-hander was thrilled when Candera, who could have started JennieFinch, gave her the ball against the Aussies - the closest thing the U.S. teamhas to a rival.

She didn't let him down. And she won it for his wife as much as she did forher teammates.

'The only way I could help him get through it was to at least bring homethe gold,' Fernandez said, her voice cracking.

As she spoke, Candrea covered his face.

During the game, he rubbed his wedding band. It reminded him of the onlything missing from the 'greatest day of my life.'

When he was chosen coach two years ago, Candrea issued a challenge to hisplayers:

'One, to be special. And, two, to leave a legacy,' he said. 'I think thisteam has done that.'

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