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How Rachel Garcia, AU softball stars approach the leaderboard

Rachel Garcia has the third-best ERA among AU pitchers this season. (Jade Hewitt/Athletes Unlimited)

For the first time in Athletes Unlimited Softball history, it’s unlikely that a pitcher will be crowned champion.

In 2020, veteran pitcher Cat Osterman ran away with the inaugural AU trophy. The next year, right-hander Aleshia Ocasio won it by over 300 points. And in June’s shortened AUX season, Danielle O’Toole edged out fellow pitcher Rachel Garcia for the title.

O’Toole has put up a good fight during the league’s third season, currently in fifth place with 1,226 points, 236 points shy of the leader, catcher Dejah Mulipolah. Alyssa Denham, in third place with 1,316 points, is the only other pitcher in the top 10. Infielder Amanda Chidester (second, 1,364 points) and outfielder Haylie McCleney (fourth, 1,316 points) are the next-closest to first with one week remaining in the season.

Each season, in addition to a Defender of the Year award, AU names just one champion based on who finishes atop the leaderboard. But for most of the athletes, Athletes Unlimited has always been about more than the hardware. It’s an opportunity for them to compete with some of the top players in their sport and continue their softball careers.

Garcia is in her first year with Athletes Unlimited. The pitcher took last year off after winning a silver medal with Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics. Though she’s currently in 26th with 962 points and off pace for the title, she’s been one of the best pitchers to step into the circle this season. Her 3.00 ERA through 39 innings is third-best among pitchers with over 30 innings pitched, behind O’Toole’s 3.03 ERA through 34 IP and Denham’s 1.62 ERA through 34 IP.

“You’re facing the best hitters in the nation,” Garcia told Just Women’s Sports. “You’re facing people who are veterans of the game, so you have to be a little bit more smart. It’s more like a mind game at this point. I came out during AUX only throwing two pitches and being able to get away with it. Now I’m out here and I had to put other pitches into my arsenal.”

While her pitching has kept her competitive in the standings this season, Garcia says she’s more focused on other areas of the game, like her pitch count. The leaderboard, in fact, has been the last thing on her mind.

“I want my team to win. That’s what’s important to me,” she said. “I don’t personally like to look at the leaderboard. I like to look more at my pitching, how it’s rolling … because I feel like, for me as a person, [the leaderboard is] something that I think is more of a distraction than anything.”

Many of AU’s athletes are still trying to learn the rules of accumulating individual points and applying them to their performances.

Players can earn points for every element of the game, with a base of 10 points for plays like a single, a stolen base and a drawn walk. Doubles amount to 20 points, triples 30 and home runs 40. Points can also be lost, such as when a player gets caught stealing. Pitchers earn four points for each out and lose 10 for each run allowed.

Players also earn 10 points for each inning won and 50 points for a game victory. MVP points are also up for grabs among those who have standout performances.

“I feel like each week it’s just a different challenge. You kind of learn the game in a different way,” shortstop Sydney Romero said of the points system.

“Being able to pay attention to [the individual points] and winning each inning — really taking the game inning by inning because each inning literally matters — has helped me personally because you have to pay attention literally to each inning, and you can’t miss a beat in between.”

“You pay more attention to detail,” added infielder Sierra Romero, Sydney’s sister. “So even if your team is losing, you’re thinking, ‘OK, as a team, how can we win this inning to get everybody points?’ You’re still thinking about the team aspect of it. Every single inning matters, and what’s cool is even if you are losing right now, if we can win this inning, we got ourselves some points, and we might even take the lead.”

Sydney Romero, in 21st place entering the final three games of the AU season, didn’t always have an optimistic perspective of the leaderboard. Coming from a standout career at Oklahoma, where she won two College World Series, and the National Pro Fastpitch league, she had to learn how to approach the new rules in her two years with AU.

“Last year, I could not look at the point system. It would drive me nuts knowing where I was at on the leaderboard,” she said. “But this year, I actually like to pay attention to it and look at it because I feel like I have a better understanding. And it doesn’t make me that mad anymore.”

Of course, Sydney says she still wants to compete and move up the leaderboard, though her sentiment isn’t shared across the league. Sierra, for one, has a laser focus on winning each time she steps onto the field.

“I might know the basic stuff, but I couldn’t tell you where anybody’s at on the leaderboard ever,” she said. “I am a perfectionist [about hitting], but for me I’ve just noticed that not paying attention to the leaderboard has helped me and I’m just focusing on winning games. I think the one time I looked at it was last year when Sydney showed me.”

AU’s first-ever champion took a holistic approach from the start. Osterman has since retired, but her message continues to resonate with current players.

“At the end of the day, does [our performance] make or break where we end in the standings? Yes,” the softball legend said last year of the Athletes Unlimited leaderboard. “But does it make or break our careers? No, not at all.”

Emma Hruby is an Associate Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @EHruby.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Crypto.com Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a Change.org petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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