It's Pride vs. Bandits in a rivalry that stacks up with the best of them on tap for NPF title series

Graham Hays

Lacey Waldrop contrasts her team with the Pride by saying the Bandits are more about player development and community involvement.

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Barely three days, and thousands of miles, removed from winning a world championship and qualifying for the 2020 Olympics, several members of the U.S. national team were back on a softball field Wednesday afternoon. As airplanes similar to the ones that carried them home from Japan roared overhead after takeoff at nearby O'Hare International Airport, players fielded ground balls, honed swings and threw pitches in the bullpen.

The uniforms were different -- some players wearing the red, white and blue practice gear of the USSSA Pride and others the black and orange of the Chicago Bandits. The time difference was literally night and day -- the implications of the games to come not as far-reaching. Yet their presence spoke to a similarity.

A week that began with the United States and Japan renewing one of softball's best rivalries ends with another as the Pride and Bandits play a best-of-five series for the National Pro Fastpitch title.

And with Olympic qualification still shaping a new softball landscape, never has there been more at stake for the two flagship franchises in a league marking its 15th anniversary.

The Bandits and Pride will play for the championship for the seventh time since 2010. The Bandits have won three times and the Pride twice (one postseason meeting, in 2012, ended without a champion due to persistent rain). That they would meet this season was admittedly a foregone conclusion after 2017 champion Scrap Yard left the league in an acrimonious breakup. That was the biggest domino in an offseason sequence that left NPF with just two flagship teams and three first- or second-year teams with rosters geared toward international development, one Australian and two Chinese.

The result was a regular season in which the Pride went 42-5, including 8-4 against Chicago, to finish five games ahead of the Bandits. The rest of the league went 39-103. Third place finished more than 26 games out.

If not a competitive high-water mark, the season at least promises a compelling finale.

The players who first forged the rivalry are mostly gone. The Pride were once largely composed of 2008 Olympians, and the Bandits were built around fellow Olympian Monica Abbott (who now pitches for Scrap Yard) and a supporting cast of more overlooked, sometimes local, players. Yet it may be the NPF's crowning achievement that this rivalry took root and blooms again and again even as the faces involved change.

"I think it was passed on," said the Pride's Lauren Chamberlain, the NCAA all-time home-run champion in the midst of her best pro season. "It's important to understand the history of your team and those big battles that have been won or lost before you got here. They always come to play. They're rough, and we are, too.

"I think if you look up and down the line when we're in the dugout, it's pretty well matched up."

This isn't a paper rivalry. It has boiled over, perhaps most famously in 2012 when a pitch from former Pride pitcher Danielle Lawrie hit then-Bandits star Megan Wiggins, who briefly appeared intent on making her way to the circle. The bad blood isn't permanent -- Wiggins, for instance, is now one of the Pride's best hitters, while former Pride standout Lauren Lappin is an assistant coach with the Bandits. But the constant competition and identities shaped by each other are so hardwired by now that Arizona-UCLA and USA-Japan don't have any edge on the passion.

"It starts with just our two clubs are so different," Bandits pitcher Lacey Waldrop said. "I guess you can kind of look at the Pride as almost the Yankees in baseball. And I'm sure that's not the first time someone has given that comparison from the players' side, just because they have the big names, they have -- honestly, they're paid more than we are. All of that is there.

"And then, not that they don't play for good reasons, but I feel like the heart of the Bandits is that we play because we care about the young kids coming up and we want them to see the Bandits and know 'One day I can be them.' We're blue collar, we play really hard, we work really hard. We're always going to be ourselves. That's one thing that has stayed true to the Bandits my whole four years of being here."

NPF teams operate with the same $175,000 salary cap, so with rosters of 20-plus players it means none of those involved is getting rich during the summer season. But the cap isn't the last word because incentives and personal service contracts for offseason work can boost earning power. (At the extreme, that was how Scrap Yard signed Abbott to a contract worth $1 million with incentive clauses designed to be met.)

Pride president Don DeDonatis is known to spare little expense, relative to the financial realities of softball, and exert influence commensurate with that payroll on the direction of the league. So beyond the initial assemblage of Olympians signed after the franchise emerged from the wreckage of the former Washington Glory a decade ago and relocated to Florida, one team ended up with not just Chamberlain and Oklahoma teammate Shelby Pendley in the same draft but Sierra Romero a year later and Paige Parker and Jessie Warren this year.

They aren't apologetic about that Yankees-like aura. That was in many respects the design for an organization that has also put on fall tours to play exhibition games against college teams and this spring played Japan at the Mary Nutter Classic, one of college softball's major events. They want to be the gold standard.

"The Pride is unmatched," Chamberlain said. "The brand is behind it. Everybody knows about it -- if they don't know about the NPF, they've heard of the Pride before. And I think the names that you've seen on the roster before and the names that you see on it now is just a representation of the best softball in the world, honestly. It's a blessing to be a part of."

There is some nuance lost in painting the rivalry as the all-powerful Pride against the hardscrabble Bandits. Waldrop herself is a former national player of the year in college. And while the Pride have Team USA pitchers Keilani Ricketts and Delanie Gourley, outfielder Kirsti Merritt and infielder Sahvanna Jaquish, the Bandits feature both Delaney Spaulding, the star shortstop for the U.S. team, and Danielle O'Toole, another of the pitchers who won gold last week (they also have Aleshia Ocasio, off a strong world championship performance for Puerto Rico).

But the identity of the team now operated by the Village of Rosemont, which owns the stadium that will host the final series, is also summed up by Sammy Marshall, who is among the Bandits' most productive hitters. Marshall grew up in nearby Naperville, Illinois. The party for her 12th birthday was at one of the team's games, and she still has autographs from former players like Olympians Jennie Finch and Vicky Galindo.

After a standout career at Western Illinois, far from the spotlight on college softball's biggest programs, she signed with the Bandits and totaled all of six at-bats as a rookie. But the team's veterans told her she was part of a process. She got a graduate assistant coaching job at a small school in Florida that left her summers open and kept coming home to the Bandits. She enters the final series with the second-most at-bats on the team, a .388 batting average and 1.010 OPS.

She signed a three-year contract extension earlier this year. And with a sports business concentration for the MBA she is working toward, she and teammate Shelby Turnier, another player who flew under the radar in a standout college career at UCF, will run an indoor academy this offseason a few miles from the park the Bandits call home.

"It's not necessarily the college coaching world," Marshall said. "But still coaching in a different capacity, to where hopefully instead of working with the same 20 women every day, we're working with 20 women a week. And just empowering women and elevating the level of softball talent around the Chicagoland area. 

"All of the young girls that come to games are hopefully available to give lessons to. And if they're looking for two professional players to get lessons from, what better way but to do it there."

The NPF has proven in 15 years that it has survival skills. And in their own way, the Bandits and Pride represent the best of it. The league still aspires to be a place where the best players work in an environment equal to their skill, where Chamberlain and Romero are treated like professionals. And it aspires to be a place where players are able to reach their full potential, where Marshall can prove she's as good a hitter as anyone.

The season thus far has suggested that aspiration is still a long way from reality. The NPF is still searching for franchise stability. It is still searching for a national television platform and the sponsors and revenue to pay all of its players a living wage.

It is still trying to reach an audience.

But as it has so often before, it will put its best on display with the Bandits and Pride. And hope that the intensity of one of the sport's great rivalries can yet be a place to begin.

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