Second place is unfamiliar territory where USA women's softball is concerned. But thanks to a surprising loss to Japan in the gold medal game at the Beijing Olympics last summer, that's where Team USA currently finds itself " on the second step looking up.
That's the way it's been for the last 11 months.
Redemption, however, may be at hand for the Americans. Or at least a shot at it, as the 2009 KFC World Cup of Softball is set to get under way here at the ASA Hall of Fame Complex on Thursday.
The five-day event features the top four finishers from the 2008 Olympics " Japan, Team USA, Australia and Canada " along with a pair of rising stars in the softball world " Italy and the Netherlands. Team USA, the two-time defending World Cup champion, would like nothing better than to erase the lingering sting from Beijing.
"You lose the gold medal game in the Olympics and it sticks with you. So this is definitely a chance for us to come out here, play well and reclaim the No. 1 spot in the world," said Team USA coach Jay Miller. "This is easily the biggest event of 2009 for us, and we are looking forward to it."
The American women are not used to playing the role of hunter, as opposed to the wearing the proverbial target. Over the last 20-plus years, Team USA has dominated to the tune of capturing three Olympic gold medals, six consecutive world championship titles and two of the first three World Cup crowns.
That's an impressive run in anyone's book. Starting a new streak won't be easy considering Team USA returns only seven of the 15 players from the 2008 Olympic roster.
"We definitely look forward to playing them again," said Team USA pitcher Monica Abbott, pointing to her team's first rematch with Japan since last summer. "Our team is a lot different than the one we put on the field at Beijing, a lot younger. We're rebuilding, to some degree. So it will be a challenge.
"But we have a lot of talent and we're excited about the World Cup because it's a great event. Oklahoma City always has great crowds."
With the International Olympic Committee's decision to drop women's softball from the Summer Games, beginning in 2012, the World Cup has become even more important from a competition standpoint. While the International Softball Federation continues to lobby for its sport's Olympic future, there are no guarantees for its reinstatement at this point.
"It's kind of a strange time because of the whole Olympic question. But we are optimistic that softball will return to the 2016 Olympics," said Miller. "We have a lot of changes on our roster and we're looking forward to the World Cup this summer and the World Championship, which is also in Oklahoma City in 2010."
The fourth edition of the World Cup, which gets under way at 11:30 a.m. Thursday with an Italy-Netherlands matchup, offers a close-up look at some of the world's greatest softball teams and players. And according to Abbott, it's a chance for fans to really sink their teeth into the sport.
"The World Cup is very kid-friendly and fan-friendly. Besides getting the chance to see some great softball, it's an opportunity to actually meet and get to know the players," said Abbott, who helped put the University of Tennessee softball program on the map during an All-America career there from 2004-07.
"I love coming back to Oklahoma City because the fans there really appreciate the game. Plus, it's just a great event and it's important to what we are trying to do as a team." "Jay C. Upchurch