If Team USA is to win gold, it has to get past star pitcher Tanya Harding
Posted: Friday August 20, 2004 12:59PM; Updated: Friday August 20, 2004 2:45PM
Next up for Team USA softball, Tanya Harding.
No, not the notorious flower of American Olympic womanhood who turned to the boxing ring because her involvement with Nancy Kerrigan getting whacked in the knee with a metal bar a decade ago simply was not humiliation enough for a lifetime, but Tanya (with an a) Harding, the not-quite-as-notorious UCLA student-athlete from Australia who spent one semester in Westwood in 1995 and couldn't have found a classroom with a compass and a road map.
To borrow from Glinda (The Good Witch) in The Wizard of Oz, this one's worse than the other one was.
When the U.S. meets Australia in its first medal-round game Sunday, they expect to be facing the nasty 65-mile-per-hour stuff from the now 32-year-old Harding. (We interrupt this story to bring you an explanation of the Olympic playoff system. The U.S. and Australia, the top two teams in the round-robin, meet in the second playoff game Sunday. The winner goes to the gold-medal game Monday. The USA-Australia loser then plays the winner of the playoff between the third and fourth-place teams, with the winner of that game advancing to play for gold. Thanks for your attention.)
Anyway, back to Harding. Team USA might have a four-woman rotation that is deeper than Kierkegaard, but Harding has been the star pitcher in this tournament. She has allowed seven hits in 26 innings, no runs and a 3-0 record. The U.S. did not see her in the 10-0 mercy-rule win against the Aussies in the round-robin, doing most of the damage against the highly regarded Melanie Roche, but Team USA is all too familiar with Harding.
In 1996 she handed the eventual American gold medalists their only defeat, out-pitching Lisa Fernandez. In 2000 Harding worked all 13 innings in a 2-1 game Australia won on a walkoff home run, again beating Fernandez, who struck out a record 25 batters. While USA coach Mike Candrea said Friday, after the 3-0 victory over Chinese Tapei, that he would not decide on a starter until Saturday night, Fernandez is a virtual lock to go against Harding, with Jennie Finch ready to pitch if the Americans have to play a second game Sunday. If Team USA sees Japan in the final, left-hander Cat Osterman, who allowed one hit but uncharacteristically walked four in six innings Friday, would face the predominantly left-handed Japanese lineup.
But many people in USA Softball have memories that pre-date the sport's inclusion in the Olympics in 1996. Harding, the stone ringer, arrived at UCLA in 1995 and won all four games in the College World Series, beating Arizona, 4-2, in the final. She then returned home, leaving a mess in her wake. The Bruins were put on probation for diverting three scholarships intended for soccer players to members of the softball team, presumably Harding among them. UCLA was then forced to vacate its NCAA championship but the title was not, alas, awarded to the Wildcats.
The burned Arizona coach? Candrea.
"Oh, I remember Tanya Harding from '95," Candrea said, dryly. "She pitched against us in the World Series and beat us. So I know her."
This time, it's personal.