No doubt, Pride are the team to beat

There is no question which team is heading to Sulphur, La., as the favorite to take home the National Pro Fastpitch softball championship.

The USSSA Pride -- based in Kissimmee, Fla. -- are anchored by several members of the 2010 women's national team and of the 2008 Summer Olympic silver medalists. The Pride topped the league with a 30-9 regular-season record, far ahead of the second-place Akron Racers (22-17).

But the team knows that's not enough to make it a shoo-in at McMurry Park. The Pride made it to the finals as the fourth seed last year and upset the top-seeded Chicago Bandits.

Play begins Thursday, with the Racers facing the No. 3 Bandits, followed by the Pride against the No. 4 NPF Diamonds. The series are best-of- three games, with the winners advancing to the championship series, which is also best-of-three. The finals will be broadcast live Sunday on ESPN2.

The Pride's players are ready to take home the trophy again, though they can't help but feel some pressure.

"We're feeling really good because we came in last season as one of the low seeds, and we were the underdog, and now we have the target on our back," said outfielder Jessica Mendoza, who is batting .379 for the season with a 35 RBIs. "'Pressure is a privilege,' as Billie Jean King always said, and when people expect you to win, when you expect yourself to win, that's the only way I expect us to play."

The Pride come into the playoffs on a roll, having gone 8-2 to finish the regular season.

"I think if we keep playing the way we have been, we'll make a good run at the trophy," said pitcher Cat Osterman, who has a 0.94 ERA. "We never talk about things being a must-win, and a lot of us have been in pressure situations, so I think we are just having fun playing."

The Racers, who have been neck-and-neck with the Bandits all season, finished with a six-game winning streak. The two teams are set to play Thursday, with Akron leading the season series 9-7.

"I'm expecting the first series to probably go to three games, and it's going to be a hard battle," Racers head coach Jake Schumann said. "We've scored a lot of runs against everyone else, but not against Chicago, and we're hoping to squeak by."

Akron does have momentum on its side, and strong team chemistry.

"Overall, we've been playing well the last couple of weeks this season, which is honestly where you want to be -- playing well toward the end," said first baseman Nicole Trimboli, who has been a part of three championship series teams. "A month ago, we weren't clicking offensively or defensively, and the pitching wasn't going well, but now we're playing ball, getting along and going pretty steady as well as not really having a lot of big injuries to deal with."

The Bandits counter with All-Star pitcher Monica Abbott, who leads the league with a 0.80 ERA and 140 strikeouts in 96 innings.

"The Bandits have been looking forward to this for some time now, and we're excited to get down there; our team is very focused right now," Abbott said. "We're having some really good practices, and we're trying to work out all the kinks and communication skills on the field and hammer out the final details before we get down there."

Rounding out the four teams are the NPF Diamonds, who finished in a distant fourth place with a 6-32 record and on a five-game losing streak. But the Diamonds, who field 10 rookies, don't see this is a bad thing, especially in light of last year's championship results.

"We have confidence in ourselves and in each other, and we're relaxed because we have nothing to lose," said rookie infielder Biannca Mejia. "We're expecting to win because any team can win on any day.

"I think as long as we come out playing hard and do our jobs and limit mental and physical errors, we can play a good game against the No. 1 seed."

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