If Jessica Moore needed a crowd around her to make pitching worthwhile, she might never have picked up a softball in the first place.
Crowds are hard to come by in Sutter, the town in northern California that offered olive groves aplenty, but no stoplights and little more in the way of grocery shopping when the Team USA pitcher grew up there. Sutter is near Yuba City, Moore explained recently to an outsider, not realizing that information might not help non-locals come any closer to finding it on a map. The nearest population center of national significance is Sacramento, about an hour south. In a town of around 3,000 residents, her high school senior class barely reached triple digits.
Sutter is the kind of small town, she said, that shuts down for a high school football game. But it was not the kind of place where a young girl playing softball was likely to be spoiled with attention or the newest and priciest equipment. It was the kind of place where she wore out a rut in the grass in the backyard, her foot dragging each time she threw a pitch to her dad.
Whether it's more accurate to say those surroundings shaped her or suited her, the place and the person meshed.
"I don't really like to be the center of attention," Moore said. "Some people, they look at [the pitcher] as the player who wants to have the spotlight on them. I'm not necessarily that, but I like to be the one who is in control. I trust myself to do the job -- and obviously my teammates. But I like to have things riding on me. I like that pressure. I love to compete."
As much as the drop-ball that tumbles off the table before it reaches batters, as much as the international experience available to the longest-serving pitcher on Team USA's staff, it is her background that makes Moore such an asset at this particular moment in the sport's history.
She worked to earn the chance to pitch for her country. That means everything to her. How many people are watching means less.
The world's attention is turning to the Southern Hemisphere and the Olympics, even as 31 international softball teams gather much farther north, near Vancouver, British Columbia, for the World Baseball Softball Confederation World Championship. There is optimism within softball that by the time the globe next gathers for the Olympics four years from now in Japan, the sport will return to the program from which it was evicted after 2008. A decision is expected by the time Brazil's Olympics begin. But for now, as was the case when Japan won the title in Canada in 2012 and then defended it in the Netherlands in 2014, the world championship remains the sport's biggest international prize.
Vancouver, a megacity in every other respect, will play the role of Sutter in the shadow cast by Rio de Janeiro. There will be no television coverage in the United States and only modest media attention -- just plenty of competition for Moore and her teammates.
Moore is not the household name, even in softball households, that Team USA pitchers of old like Lisa Fernandez or Jennie Finch were. None of the pitchers who make up the team's staff, which includes Kelly Barnhill, Ally Carda, Delanie Gourley and Jaclyn Traina, fit that description. Part of the reason are offensive tides in the sport that make it more difficult for pitchers to dominate. Some of it is because without the Olympic stage, it takes more effort for fans to keep track of players beyond college. That isn't to say the pitchers lack credentials.
While recent graduate Cheridan Hawkins rewrote many of the University of Oregon's records, Moore finished her college career as the Ducks' all-time leader in wins and with four of the top five strikeout seasons in program history. She was thrice a first-team all-conference honoree.
It says as much as anything that she started each of the first 20 postseason games Oregon played during her time there.
"I hated facing her," said Team USA's Valerie Arioto, formerly a Pac-12 rival at California. "If you look at the stats, I'm pretty sure she got me out every single time. So that's a little upsetting. She can just spot the ball, move the ball, drop it off the table. She was always one where I just hoped my teammates picked me up."
Arioto was being generous, as teammates are wont to be. It wasn't a complete whitewash; among the most accomplished hitters in recent memory, she did manage exactly one single in 15 career at-bats against Moore.
"She's a bulldog," Team USA coach Ken Eriksen said. "She goes right after the batters. It's not trying to nibble here and nibble there. The most successful pitchers are the ones who avoid the walks, and she's that type of pitcher where she'll go right at you."
She got a late start pitching, not playing organized softball until she was around 10 years old. Once she started, she wasn't content to be the big fish in a small pond. She played for high-level travel softball teams based far away from Sutter. She chose Oregon, at the time a struggling program in a conference that was still producing the national champion on an almost annual basis.
The surroundings never intimidated her, even if she felt some people doubted the small-town pitcher could survive. It wasn't that she thought she was so good that she wouldn't struggle. She craved the challenge. It mattered more than manners, more than making friends.
"I think that was the hardest thing for me going in, was getting people to understand what I'm really about because I am a little rough around the edges," Moore said. "I think people sometimes mistake my sheer competitiveness and my demeanor. I guess I don't always look like the nicest person on the field. You can't put me in my element and expect me to be nice."
Balance came as college continued, with help from a kindred spirit in former Oregon assistant and current UNLV coach Lisa Dodd. It was fine to expect the best out of teammates, Dodd suggested, but better to help them get there than shut them out if they fall short. By the time Moore was a junior, she was the Pac-12 pitcher of the year and a leader on a team that ended a long World Series drought. Yet no invite came to try out for Team USA, even as it rebuilt its roster for the first world championship it would contest without its Olympic-era core.
So she went out and put up similar numbers as a senior. Finally, the invitation came in 2013. Four summers later, she is still here.
"I had the opportunity to work with the best pitching staff ever put together for the United States of America," Eriksen said of his role as an assistant on the 2004 Olympic team. "When I'm using my measuring stick, I'm looking at Lisa Fernandez, Cat Osterman, Lori Harrigan and Jennie Finch. That's, to me, the elite level. We have some pitchers that have that opportunity to get there, but they have to have the mental capacity to do that.
"She is one of those people that has that capacity to continue to elevate her game."
If there is a temptation to pass those off as the words a coach has to say, consider that Eriksen last year hired Moore as his pitching coach to assist him in the job that actually pays his bills as head coach at the University of South Florida. Whether or not she ever dominates hitters to the same degree those former USA pitchers did, she thinks about the game and the process of pitching the way they did. That is rare enough.
The United States doesn't enter the upcoming tournament as the favorite. Team USA doesn't hold any major title at the moment, silver medalists in the last Olympics in 2008, the most recent world championship and last year's Pan-Am Games. Japan, which won three of four games against Team USA this year, is the favorite, with or without Yukiko Ueno, the legendary ace who was not on the roster when Japan played in an invitational tournament in Oklahoma City a week ago.
Moore and her teammates aren't seeking the world's validation.
Just an opportunity to again be its best softball team.
"I don't think I need anything to validate this experience because the experience is the experience itself," Moore said. "Every time we get on the field, we want to win. We play to win. But at the end of the day, sometimes you can't control that. We can play phenomenal and we could come in second place. At some point, you can't be OK with it, but you've got to be able to swallow that. But that's the beauty of this game, too.
"If you're chasing gold medals, somewhere down the line that's going to catch up with you."
But neither are they placeholders, not merely wearing the uniforms until the Olympic glory returns and others take their places. They compete for the same reason those in Brazil will compete.
And it's not because of how many people are watching.
"You can't just have a small-town focus," Moore said. "It's got to be big dreams and you've got to go places to do it. You can't just do it out in Sutter. You've got to play against the best to prove you're the best. There is still a lot to be proven, but I think I've started a good legacy at least."