The Woodlands set to defend FAB 50 title

POWERADE FAB 50 ESPNHS Team Rankings | Meet the No. 1 Team: The Woodlands

The noise reverberated off the trees in The Woodlands, Texas. Ripples of excitement could be felt as far away as Houston, 30 miles south. After all, it was time for the first pep rally of the 2011-12 school year, which meant football was in the air.

A closer examination of the fervor, though, would reveal that it was actually another sport at The Woodlands High garnering the attention of the school's community. It was the softball team that people had come to see.

"ESPN showed up for us, not football," said softball coach Richard Jorgensen, whose team had been basking in the glory of a Texas state title and No. 1 national ranking in the POWERADE FAB 50 last spring. "The girls absolutely stole the show, and the community had confetti for us and everything. It was such a wonderful thing for the girls to experience."

But with big celebrations come bigger expectations, and the Highlanders didn't leave much margin for error in 2012 after winning 44 of 45 games in 2011. Adding to Jorgensen's headache is the departure of two All-State players, 3B Brooke Riemann (now at Blinn College) and OF Kelsey Jolly (now at McNeese State). And turning that headache into a full-fledged migraine is the fact that the team's pitching ace, senior Paige McDuffee, is expected to miss the season while she recovers from surgery on her pitching arm.

"Now it's going to get more intense," said Jorgensen. "I'm not as relaxed as a coach this year for sure. When we had Paige healthy, we felt going into every game that if we could score three runs we would win."

Perhaps sophomore RHP Caitlin Bartsch can be the aspirin and 6-foot freshman LHP Abby Langkamp can serve as the tall glass of water.

Rewind 11 months to the first tournament of last season for The Woodlands and a game against Vista Ridge (Austin, Texas). McDuffee was going hard into second base after a hit and collided with a defender, injuring her leg and ensuring that she would miss several games.

"You never think about your star pitcher getting injured and then when it happens the place gets so quiet," Jorgensen said. "You could hear a pin drop. But then Caitlin just comes in and starts throwing strikes, and by the second and third innings I looked at my assistants and said, 'Shoot, we're gonna be good.'"

Bartsch's early season experience was critical in The Woodlands' championship run last year. She went 9-0 during the season while eating some innings from McDuffee in the playoffs as the latter tried to battle through another injury, this time to her pitching arm.

"My forearm would swell to the size of a softball and I didn't have a lot of my physical stuff during the playoff run," said McDuffee. "It made me grow a lot mentally. I just had to get through innings by telling myself, 'Last pitch and you're done ... last pitch and you're done.'"

McDuffee concedes that the excruciating pain brought her to tears countless times.

"All through the rest of the playoffs, she really had to gut it out because she was only playing at about 60 percent," said Jorgensen. "We really had to rely heavily on Caitlin to take some of the tension off of Paige."

In the bleachers witnessing this emotional drama was Langkamp, an eighth-grader who would rush over to the softball games after her track meets (her middle school doesn't have a softball team) so she could cheer for the team she eventually hoped to play for.

Funny thing is, Langkamp might not have been on the varsity team this year as a freshman, but the absence of McDuffee led Jorgensen to opt for the rookie as his second hurler.

"There's going to be a lot of pressure on me and it's a tough situation to be in because I feel so bad for Paige," said Langkamp. "But I love Coach [Jorgensen] because he's all about having fun and that's something that I really respect, so I'm just going to go out there and that's what I'm going to try to do."

The fun these girls display on the softball diamond serves as a refuge from all of the laborious hours committed to becoming the No. 1 team in the nation.

As Bartsch will tell you, "Everyone sees the fun we have but they don't see the hours and hours of work that stand behind the relatively few minutes we spend playing the games."

Someone should tell Bartsch that it's difficult for fans to see that hard work through all the confetti. At this rate, they'd better be careful: The football players are going to get jealous.