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Montalvo packs power into small frame

If you stop looking for what's supposed to be there, you may find that what you're searching for has been right in front of you all along.

There's not a championship yet that has been won in an airport, but if University of Alabama senior softball standout Kelley Montalvo is any indication, perhaps the roots of more than a few titles can be traced back to ignoring the siren songs airports sometimes offer.

Vast, public places that are seemingly designed with the sole intention of making their patrons hurry up and wait, airports are nonetheless refuges of people-watching. And given the amount of travel involved in big-time sports, it's no surprise these arenas of observation lend themselves conveniently to the perfect metaphor for athletic wishful thinking.

Airport players. Athletes who look like Greek deities walking through a concourse but play with all the soul and dexterity of a three-centuries-old statue. Championship dreams across the country have been wrecked while waiting and wishing players would start performing like our eyes suggest they should.

As Crimson Tide coach Pat Murphy drove to the airport four and a half years ago to meet then-high school senior Montalvo and her father on the recruit's official visit to Alabama, little did he know he was about to meet the ultimate anti-airport player.

Friends of Murphy's from Montalvo's home turf near Miami had been telling him since the previous year that he needed to take a look at this infielder, who they swore was the best player in the area. After reaching out for more information, the Tide had started recruiting Montalvo. But because of his obligations as an assistant with the Canadian national team during the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, Murphy had to leave the on-the-ground recruiting work to assistant coaches Vann Stuedeman and Alyson Habetz. That left him with a puzzling realization on the drive to the airport.

"When she came for her recruiting trip in the fall, I'd never met her; I'd never seen her," Murphy recalled. "So I'm driving to the airport, and I call Aly and I'm like, 'I don't even know what she looks like; what does she look like?' And Aly says, 'Well, if you can get past her height, you're going to really like her.'"

Just how short was this kid, Murphy wondered?

The answer, as he recalled, was simply, "Well, you'll see. She's not very big."

In fact, while Montalvo is listed on Alabama's roster at 5 foot, even she describes herself as 4-foot-11 in conversation. It doesn't make her look any bigger that senior shortstop Kellie Eubanks stands at 6 feet tall. When sophomore Kelsi Dunne, also an even 6 feet, is in the circle, the left side of the infield starts to look a little like the Washington Bullets, circa Muggsy Bogues and Manute Bol.

But truth be told, it doesn't take a 6-foot-tall shortstop to make Montalvo easy to overlook.

"I see [her dad] walking up the concourse in the airport, and I don't see her at all," Murphy said of the initial meeting. "Well, she was right behind him; he just blocked her out. And they turned the corner and there she was. And, you know, it's a little surprising.

"But she's been just terrific and she's been a great leader this year."

A little chagrinned to admit it now, Montalvo said Alabama hadn't exactly been on top of her list, either, when the Tide started recruiting her -- it's more like they were last to the party. But despite some culture shock going from Miami to Tuscaloosa, she fell in love with the place from her first visit. And it didn't hurt that, for once, her height didn't seem to be a disqualifying factor.

Too often, she felt schools simply weren't willing to look beyond the fact she didn't look like a Division I college softball player.

"I felt that ever since I started getting recruited and all that," Montalvo said. "I really felt like I was held back because of it. You know, 4-11 shortstop, [others schools] weren't looking for that. I became a power hitter in college because of the weights and all that, working out, but I was never like that; I was always fast, put the ball on the ground and run. I never got really looked at because of that."

It didn't take her long to prove she belonged at the collegiate game's highest level. She started 52 of the team's 65 games as a freshman, hitting .285 with a .408 on-base percentage and committing just six errors on her way to a .957 fielding percentage in her new home at hot corner. Her glove remained steady as a sophomore, and her power blossomed at the plate after two years in the team's conditioning and weight training program. The smallest player on the field just about every time she steps between the lines, Montalvo hit 11 home runs and 16 doubles in 2007 en route to a .667 slugging percentage, the third-best mark in the SEC.

But Murphy always had big expectations for Montalvo, and he said it wasn't until the 2008 season that she started performing like the player he thought he signed. Her stats were as gaudy as ever -- a .663 slugging percentage at the plate and just three errors with a .983 fielding percentage -- but it wasn't just about numbers. Speaking at last year's Women's College World Series, Murphy said he told Montalvo entering her junior season that she could be the team's version of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or softball great Lisa Fernandez; she could be someone who not only excelled individually but lifted the level of play of everyone around her.

And in the growth he saw from players such as Eubanks, Brittany Rogers and Whitney Larsen during the season that followed, he felt Montalvo had accomplished just that.

"Basically, what she did her first two years was she didn't want to show anybody up," Murphy said this preseason. "She felt she shouldn't go all out or she might make somebody look bad. And I said, 'You know, the opposite is going to happen; if you dive, if you go all out, they're going to do the same thing.'"

As a recent tournament littered with ranked teams wound down, an Oklahoma player stopped on her way out of the complex to chat with a member of the traveling party from another top-10 team. The Sooners player recounted losing to Alabama that morning when Montalvo came up big in the final inning, saving the day and erasing memories of the Tide's first loss the previous night.

"We got beat on a walk-off double by the shortest girl on the field," the player said.

There wasn't anything dismissive in the player's voice when she described Alabama's slugger; it was merely a matter-of-fact description tinged with the slightest hint of admiration. And even as the friend offered condolences, both agreed that, height aside, Montalvo crushes the ball with regularity.

All Montalvo wanted was that chance to show what she could do if people would stop searching for players who look good walking through an airport.

As she put it, "I was like, 'I play with heart; why can't I just give you that?'"

Graham Hays covers softball for espn.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.