Playing with Pride: MVP Pendley lifts USSSA to fourth NPF title

USSSA Pride capture the NPF championship with the sweep of the Chicago Bandits.

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ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Shelby Pendley didn't grow up dreaming of winning National Pro Fastpitch championships. She didn't even know the league existed until a year or two before she was drafted in 2015.

She grew up thinking about playing softball -- about swinging the bat, whipping a throw across the infield, stretching out to feel a ball find her glove inches above the ground.

Where she did those things didn't matter. The dream was just to do them for as long as she could.

It just so happens that in the leanest years for women hoping to play softball beyond college, the years between the sport's Olympic exit in 2008 and news it will return in 2020, there was no better environment in which to do that than with the NPF's USSSA Pride.

Dina Kwit/Courtesy of National Pro Fastpitch

The USSSA Pride captured their fourth Cowles Cup as NPF champions, and first in three years.

One group of players set out to make sure that was the case. Pendley provided the return on investment over the weekend. With a championship, yes. With MVP honors. But mostly with the greatest catch not enough people saw.

With a 4-0 win Saturday to sweep the Chicago Bandits in the league's best-of-five championship series, the Pride brought the league's 15th season to a close with their fourth title in nine years.

All the sights and sounds of the occasion were there. Players who were perched on the dugout rail spilled onto the field after the final out. They pulled on T-shirts and caps produced special for the accomplishment. There were photos to take and a trophy to parade. There was confetti, of course.

But in a league of five teams with only two real contenders this season, the legacy of any title has its limits. The Pride were the best team in the regular season with a 42-5 record. They were the best team in the final series, not by a lot against their longtime rival, but by enough.

Where the first two games offered drama, the finale played out more like a formality. An apparent first-inning run wiped away when a runner left early on a sacrifice fly, the Bandits were unable to put the Pride under pressure. Three runs in the fourth inning sealed the outcome, the Pride's pitching too much to overcome.

The series instead crescendoed when Pendley extinguished a Chicago rally for the final out a night earlier. Expecting a slap attempt from Sammy Marshall, one of the league's leading hitters, the shortstop lined up even with the basepath between second and third. But Marshall swung away and lofted a ball that was something between a looper and a liner toward left field. If it dropped, the Bandits would have the tying run at the plate.

Pendley pivoted, took no more than three steps and launched herself almost directly toward the outfield turf.

Dina Kwit/Courtesy of National Pro Fastpitch

Pride shortstop Shelby Pendley, whose spectacular catch ended Game 2, was named the NPF championship series MVP.

"I got a good hip action going backward," she recalled. "I didn't have any false steps going anywhere -- that's something I work on a lot, that first step and being quick there. I just took a leap for it and said, 'I'm going to give it everything I have,' because there have been so many plays like that where I dive and it hits off my glove, where the extra reach isn't there."

The ball seemingly already beyond her, she landed hard. Then she saw the ball in her glove.

"What the hell?" she recalled thinking.

She wasn't the only one who had that reaction. Players nearby leaped higher in the air at that moment than they did after the final out clinched the championship a day later.

"Just her athleticism is unreal," teammate Kelly Kretschman said. "I've seen her make some spectacular plays, but that's one of the best I've seen her make in a really long time, if not the best."

Pendley has spent most of her adult softball life not quite in the shadows but at least sharing an identity with someone else, the Lou Gehrig to Lauren Chamberlain's Babe Ruth at Oklahoma and one of a long list of standouts with the Pride, the NPF franchise with the league's lion's share of stars. Year by year, it gets harder and harder to compare her with anyone. Powerful, versatile and famously fit, she looks more and more like one of a kind.

"She's physically just a specimen," said Pride coach Mike Stith, a longtime legend of travel ball with the OC Batbusters in California. "She's in the weight room, she's a workout monster, she's a beast. And there you go, that's what happens. ... You want that? Go work harder.

"I've had that long talk with [former Batbusters and current NCAA All-Americans] Amanda Lorenz and Sydney Romero and talked to them about, 'You want this? This is where you've got to go.' "

He meant the lengths to which a player has to go to reach her full potential. But it's just as important that there is a physical destination. It is at least part of why the Pride exist. There is certainly a thirst to fill the trophy case, felt all the more acutely after postseason flameouts the past three years. But that wasn't the sole motivation.

When the Pride assembled their first cast of stars in 2010, Pendley was still a high schooler in New Mexico. That she didn't know about the NPF summed up the reason many of those original Pride players cited for walking away from the U.S. national team to focus on raising the profile of a league that was their best hope of future income for playing the sport.

From a list that included the likes of Olympians Andrea Duran, Caitlin Lowe, Jessica Mendoza, Cat Osterman and Natasha Watley, Kretschman is the only one still playing for the Pride.

"We just kind of stuck it out," Kretschman said. "We wanted people to be proud of being a professional athlete, and especially being a woman professional athlete. I think that's tough in our country. That's been our goal, I think all of us, since 2008. We knew we weren't in the Olympics anymore. It was just to build something that they could all dream up to. So it's cool to see a lot of them that looked up to us now getting to do the same thing we got to do."

The degree to which the league has grown is a pressing question. There is still no consistent national television presence, the final series streamed via a subscription service. Each game of the final series in this Chicagoland stadium drew more than 1,000 fans, topped by more than 1,500 for the finale, but franchises have come and gone over the past decade, unable to attract the same people who watch college softball, let alone new fans.

For that matter, Pendley's play for the ages stands in stark contrast to Jessie Warren's defensive highlight play for Florida State in the Women's College World Series. Now a USSSA Pride rookie, Warren's play earned her an ESPY nomination.

Pendley's play didn't even make the nightly highlights.

But the other part of why one group committed themselves to the Pride in 2010 was very much on display over the weekend with a new generation of Pride players like Pendley and Game 3 pitching winner Jessica Burroughs.

They have a place to play.

Even on the team with the most resources and the most star-studded roster, it isn't easy to be a professional softball player. Not during the three-month regular season and certainly not working to pay the bills and train the other nine months of the year. For Pendley, that means taking her new MVP trophy and going back to work giving lessons in the offseason, some with her younger sister Nicole, a rookie on the Pride this season.

"That's how I support myself, and I enjoy it because it's softball," Pendley said. "I always make sure I'm making time for myself. I always make sure I'm working out, I'm taking the ground balls I need to, the swing I need to, just because that's what I like doing. I'd rather do that than go watch a movie or sit on a couch. Those are things I enjoy doing, so it's easy for me."

That was the dream.

It's why the weekend wasn't as much about the championship as the opportunity a shortstop had to make a play.

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