Year of the Cat

Osterman headlines new county sports franchise

Former University of Tennessee and Maryville High School standout Sarah Fekete poses with Tennessee Diamonds marketing director Jon Coffield next to a cardboard cutout of future Diamonds star Cat Osterman earlier this week. Fekete will serve as the Diamonds’ general manager during their first season in Blount County beginning in May.

Photo by Brandon Shinn

Former University of Tennessee and Maryville High School standout Sarah Fekete poses with Tennessee Diamonds marketing director Jon Coffield next to a cardboard cutout of future Diamonds star Cat Osterman earlier this week. Fekete will serve as the Diamonds’ general manager during their first season in Blount County beginning in May.

Pitcher Cat Osterman will be one of the players coming to Blount County along with the Tennessee Diamonds franchise.

Pitcher Cat Osterman will be one of the players coming to Blount County along with the Tennessee Diamonds franchise.

Maybe it has something to do with being left-handed.

Cat Osterman destroyed the NCAA record for career strikeouts in four seasons at Texas.

A year later, Monica Abbott erased the mark with four brilliant seasons at Tennessee.

Abbott didn’t allow an earned run all season her senior year in high school.

As a high school junior, Osterman took on the U.S. national team, limiting the Olympians to no runs and one hit through five innings, fanning 11 batters.

The national team prevailed, 1-0, in eight innings, the only time Team USA would be pushed to extra innings in the run-up tour to the 2000 Olympics.

This summer, the rivalry continues in Blount County.

The Tennessee Diamonds begin play at an area park in May. A group of area investors finalized the purchase of the franchise, formerly the Rockford Thunder, from the National Pro Fastpitch League on Dec. 29. Former University of Tennessee and Maryville High School star Sarah Fekete will serve as the Diamonds general manager.

In purchasing the Rockford franchise, the Diamonds not only get the former Thunder ace Osterman, Rockford is the league’s defending champion. Nothing like a proven winner as a start-up team.

Throw in fireballers like Abbott and Chicago Bandits pitching machine Jennie Finch, and the names on the marquee this summer will be some of the sport’s biggest.

National Pro Fastpitch couldn’t come at a better time for players like Osterman, Abbott, Finch and others. The International Olympic Committee has dropped softball from the program for 2012 Games in London. It will be at least 2016 before the sport can be reintroduced.

Until then, players like Osterman will need a place to play to stay sharp. Several things, Fekete said, made Blount County just the place.

High school girls softball is one of the area’s best attended sports in the spring. Fekete, recently named to the ESPN RISE All-Decade Softball Team, pitched Maryville to the state championship game her senior season in 2002. An ace in the pitching circle, the former Lady Rebel was also one of the area’s top hitters. She was also fast.

Those elements led to a switch from a right-handed batter with an awfully smooth swing in high school to a left-handed, slap-hitting speedster who garnered a pair of All-American selections as a Lady Vol. Fekete would lead the nation in hitting with a .500 average (110-for-220) her senior season.

After testing the professional ranks with the Philadelphia Force after graduation, Fekete returned home to marry. She and husband Chad Bailey have a 16-month-old daughter, Halle.

Fekete said she could never get the game out of her system. When the opportunity presented itself to help make the Diamonds a reality, she jumped at the chance.

“I always thought it would be great if I could get back in it,” she said. “I talked to the commissioner and asked what it would take to bring a team to East Tennessee.”

The success Tennessee’s Lady Vols have enjoyed in recent seasons under co-head coaches Ralph and Karen Weekly was a major plus.

Finch’s Chicago club regularly drew crowds in excess of 2,500 last season. Considering the popularity of softball in the area, Fekete is hoping for much the same following for the Diamonds.

“There will be people that drive from North Carolina when Monica Abbott is facing Cat Osterman or Jennie Finch,” Fekete said. “This is something than can be on ESPN. This is something everybody can take the kids to, and the price point is going to be very reasonable.”

Diamonds director of marketing Jon Coffield said the team will encourage a family atmosphere “where parents can bring their kids and the players can get involved in the community.”

The team will begin playing a three-month schedule in late May at an area park yet to be determined. It’s hoped a permanent home for the team will be part of a new baseball/softball complex, currently undergoing a feasibility study.

“It would be real nice to play in a brand new stadium,” Fekete said. “That’s what I’m keeping my fingers crossed for.”

Major League Baseball has a working agreement with NPF and will stream the league’s games live over the internet.

Finch vs. Osterman constitutes a matchup dripping with star power. Both have appeared on the cover of “Sports Illustrated.” Both have made numerous Olympic and national team starts. Their pitching resumes lack nothing.

It’s the Osterman/Abbott clash that could prove particularly enticing for area fans, and not simply for the latter’s Lady Vol connections.

Abbott is the ace of the staff for the league’s Florida Pride franchise. The Pride are owned by USSSA chairman and CEO Don DeDonatis, whose organization is the governing body for the Smoky Mountain Classic slow-pitch tournament each summer.

“I look forward to the challenge that the Diamonds will present on the field when the USSSA Florida Pride comes to town,” DeDonatis said in a league press release. “Monica Abbott against Cat Osterman — it just doesn’t get any better than that.”

Osterman, recently named the ESPN RISE Player of the Decade for softball, fanned a then-record 2,265 batters in four years at Texas. Abbott, also named to the RISE all-decade team, toppled the mark during her senior season as a Lady Vol in 2007, finishing her run at Tennessee with 2,440 punch outs. Her career records for wins (189) and shutouts (112) are also NCAA bests, along with a single-season mark of 724 strikeouts.

The Diamonds, along with NPF as a whole, are of great importance to the future of the sport, Karen Weekly said through the league’s release.

“It’s important that our outstanding college softball players have the opportunity to continue their careers at the professional level,” she said. “Our Lady Vol program has enjoyed tremendous fan support, and I’m sure those fans will be thrilled to get behind professional softball as well.”

Watching the likes of Osterman, Abbott and Finch in the pitching circle isn’t the only plus the Diamonds will add to Blount County, Fekete said. The players will live in the area. Many will help support themselves through giving lessons to area youth.

Pitching lessons from Osterman!

“The great thing for our community is the type of players that will help train our kids,” Fekete said. “Being able to give these kids role models is going to be great for our community.”

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