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The girls of summer


One philosophy was not better than the other. Just different. Chuck Ludlow was very clear about that. Don't jump to any conclusions. Don't stereotype. Ludlow has coached boys in baseball and girls in softball. He said he can't treat each gender the same.

"I read something from Mike Candera (University of Arizona and U.S. Olympic softball coach) that made a lot of sense to me," said Ludlow, who lives in Petaluma. "He said, 'Girls need to feel good to play good. Boys have to play good to feel good.' I can't beat a girl down and then build her back up. I have to build her up and then leave her there."

It would appear Ludlow's heavy lifting is over because of this feel-good sentence: The girls on his Easton Elite Under-18 team will compete next week in the 2013 ASA/USA Softball National Championship tournament in Clearwater, Fla. As compliments go, this is pretty much a standing ovation. The Easton Elite will be one of 62 teams competing for the national championship in the double-elimination tournament. It is only the second time, Ludlow said, that a girls softball team from Sonoma County has made it to nationals, the other being the Cal Haze 14 years ago.

The Easton Elite? National Champions? How does that sound? To the four players who were asked that question Wednesday, the immediate response was non-verbal. A straight-ahead stare. It was like asking, What would you do if Buster Posey asked for your autograph?

"Just to say the words," said Courtney Ludlow, Chuck's daughter and a pitcher-first baseman from Casa Grande.

That we are Easton Elite National Champions ... not that Buster wants my autograph. Just to be clear.

Thirteen of the 18 players on the roster are from Sonoma County, four from Marin and one from Napa. All 18 have committed or will commit to a college. In that, the season already has been a success. The purpose of the Easton Elite U18s is to travel to showcase tournaments, expose talent that will attract colleges to offer a scholarship.

"I have had scouts come up to me," Ludlow said, "and ask me, 'I need a third baseman. Do you have one?' By the same token I'll go up to a scout and ask them if they need a (graduating) 2014 shortstop or a 2015 pitcher."

It may seem like a fool's paradise to be a college scout at a 62-team, roughly 1,200-player tournament. How can a scout find a talent to stand out among all that?

"What scouts look for is attitude. They want to see how you respond to adversity," said pitcher Dana Thomsen of Petaluma High. "If you strike out and go back to the dugout and throw your helmet and your bat, they cross you off their list."

The Easton Elite, 29-13 this summer, are well-schooled in appropriate behavior and attitude. Easton Elite is not a hobby, something to do during the summer. Ludlow is very clear on the kind of girl he wants. Someone who wants to play in college. Someone who is willing to sacrifice to make that happen. Someone who has parents who are willing to sacrifice their time and, especially, their money.

"This is only a guess, but I would say $5,000," Ludlow said. That's $5,000 for a parent or parents to fund a softball daughter for a travel ball summer. That's a lot of money but there's a lot of ambition behind it. The Easton Elite have played in Las Vegas, Irvine and twice in both Stockton and Portland. The girls, meanwhile, have spent the past two weeks fund-raising, setting up stands at Oliver's in Cotati and G&G Market in Petaluma, to name a few.

"That's $5,000 not counting the Nationals," corrected Angelica Terrel, a catcher and first baseman from Windsor High.

That's not counting the hours that pile up like so many fall leaves, the hours that parents spend of arranging lodging, transportation, making sure their daughter only has to worry about hitting a fastball or fielding a grounder. When it comes to commitment, a parent of an elite softball player has few equals.

"My dad has risked his job for this," said Courtney Ludlow, who was half-joking.

The ASA Nationals have dramatically increased the intensity of the spotlight. Chuck Ludlow, a Toro salesman, said he expects at least 200 college scouts to be in Clearwater.

"There will be scouts from Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA, scouts from a lot of East Coast schools," said Ludlow, who was the head baseball coach at Novato High for four years before taking over the Easton Elite 12 years ago. "Back there they don't get to see a lot of western teams."

Not that this state has to apologize for its talent.

"California teams have high expectations wherever they go," Courtney Ludlow said. Seven of the 62 teams are from California. That the Easton Elite will be tested is an understatement. With pool play on Monday and Tuesday consisting of three games, the Elite could play as many as 13 games in six days to win it all.

"We just got through with a tournament in Irvine," Courtney Ludlow said, "and we held our own."

The Clearwater spotlight may be brighter than any that the players have experienced, but this is not the first time they felt being watched. As early as eighth grade, they said, most of them felt discerning eyes upon them. For example, Chuck Ludlow said Halli Short, a left-handed freshman pitcher at Santa Rosa High last year, is in a lot of college conversations.

Being scouted, being interviewed for the past four or five years is not only a maturing influence, it has long-term value as well. To feel the pressure of expectations, to know you are the bug under the microscope, to handle it without suffocating, it has its own reward.

"I tell the girls all the time," Chuck Ludlow said, "that this will come in handy later when they are adults and they have to go into the fish tank and swim with the sharks."

Hitting a 3-and-2 fastball on the black, with the national championship on the line, with 200 colleges watching, with a free college education in the balance, the Easton girls won't be swimming with sharks later on in their life. In comparison, it'll feel like they are swimming with guppies.