- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2000

SYDNEY, Australia That voodoo they do must work.

The U.S. softball team saw its 112-game winning streak end in Sydney last week, replaced by a three-game skid that left it on the brink of elimination.

The American women washed away their bad fortune in a "voodoo shower" in the athletes village and completed a stunning comeback by beating Japan 2-1 yesterday in extra innings to win their second straight gold medal.

This game, like so many others in this tournament, turned on a mistake. With the score tied in the bottom of the eighth inning and runners on first and second as a result of two straight walks, Laura Berg hit a fly ball to left field.

Japanese left fielder Shioro Koseki backpedaled, caught the ball and watched it pop out of her glove as she fell.

She recovered and made a throw to home, but pinch-runner Jennifer McFalls already had crossed the plate to score the winning run.

"It felt great coming off the bat, and when the ball came out of her glove, I knew it was ours," Berg said. "When I hit it and started to run, I was watching her all the way. I saw her going back on it and then she just went down, and the ball came right out of her glove. We have been very unlucky this whole tournament, and finally, the luck went our way."

The American women did feel as if they needed to change their luck, so much so they actually had a "cleansing" at a team meeting to get rid of the "voodoo" that had cursed them. It must have worked.

Lisa Fernandez, who pitched five straight perfect games on the team's summer tour, struck out eight and allowed just three hits against Japan. But one of them was a solo home run in the fourth inning by Reika Utsugi to give Japan a 1-0 lead.

The way these games have been played at the Blacktown Softball Centre the Americans lost 2-1 to Japan last week in extra innings to stop their winning streak, and lost their three straight games, all extra innings, by a combined margin of four runs one run could mean the game.

But the United States managed to come back to tie the score in the bottom of the fifth when catcher Stacey Nuveman drove home Michele Smith.

Before the tournament began, veteran Dot Richardson the star of the 1996 Olympics with her home run to win the gold medal, acknowledged that the rest of the world had gotten better at the American game than four years ago, when the U.S. women won the game's first gold medal in Atlanta. "Since 1996, the competition has gotten much stronger," she said. "But so have we."

But it's clear the gap between the United States and the other softball powers has closed considerably. The American women opened play here with a 6-0 win over Canada, and followed that up with a 3-0 victory over Cuba. It appeared that the softball machine was steamrolling to another gold medal.

However, Japan stunned the American women 2-0 as Richardson committed two fielding errors that allowed Japan to score in the top of the 11th inning. That ended the 112-game winning streak. After the game, Fernandez was in tears, declaring, "I'm a leader who is not coming through."

A day later, it happened again, this time a marathon that ended in a 2-0 victory for China in 14 innings, and now the American women were doubting themselves. Then came the 2-1 loss to arch-rival Australia, coming off Fernandez in the bottom of the 13th inning.

Following that game, the women had their team "cleansing." They bounced back to avenge all three loses on their way to their second gold medal defeating China 3-0, Australia 1-0 and Japan Tuesday in the gold medal game.

"It's been full circle, emotionally and physically," Nuveman said. "Winning tonight shows so much about the athletes we have, and that we can come back and beat those teams who have beaten us."

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