-- ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The first three selections in this spring's National Pro Fastpitch draft -- Lauren Chamberlain, Shelby Pendley and Lacey Waldrop -- nonetheless played minor roles, if roles at all, in the most recent classic encounter in a rivalry that defines their league.
In its own way, it underscored just how much that league will need them in the future.
The Florida-based USSSA Pride, who selected Chamberlain and Pendley with the first two picks in the draft, and the Chicago Bandits, who chose Waldrop with the third pick, have been the NPF's two most successful franchises through much of their respective existences. Last season marked the first in five years in which they did not play each other for the championship, and they have again separated from the competition in the standings as the postseason approaches in a matter of weeks.
Year after year, the well-funded Pride surround former Olympians with some of the most recognizable names from the college game. The Bandits rely on pitching, ace Monica Abbott the lone former American Olympian who doesn't play for the Pride, and they have a knack for finding overlooked talent to remain in the title picture. At its best, a game between the two offers the best softball played anywhere in the world at the moment, and the rivalry was at its best as Abbott and the Pride's Keilani Ricketts matched scoreless inning for scoreless inning on a recent Monday night in the shadow of O'Hare International Airport. Ricketts was more dominant, but a missed opportunity for the third out in the bottom of the ninth inning on an infield single that could have been an error allowed Chicago's Taylor Edwards to hit a walk-off home run in a 3-0 win.
Pendley went hitless as the Pride's starting second baseman that night, while neither Chamberlain nor Waldrop entered the game. It was a night for rookies, with the exception of a nice defensive play from Chicago reserve Megan Blank, to be seen but not heard from.
There are a lot of nights like that in the league, even with experience a precious commodity on rosters that skew young because of salaries that make it part-time work.
Kelly Kretschman was already an Olympic gold medalist and several years out of college when she made her NPF debut for the Akron Racers in 2005, the league's second season, but even she struggled, at least by her standards, to adjust. It is a common occurrence.
"The greatest thing I think that people don't realize about our league is how tough it is," Kretschman said. "You don't get that day off or you don't get that easy pitcher, that easy game where you can kind of get your swing back if you're struggling a little bit. In the NPF, you're facing someone that is a quality pitcher every single day. And you don't get that Monday and Tuesday [off like in college] to kind of give yourself a break away from the game and then get back into it. We are playing almost every single day, and you're going to see that out of a lot of our rookies, that they're going to struggle at first."
What makes this year's draft class stand out is both the star power they brought with them and the circumstances that surrounded their arrival.
The league is healthy enough to have survived more than a decade. It is healthy enough that after finally stabilizing its prodigal fourth franchise in Pennsylvania two years ago, it added a fifth team in Dallas this season. Though unconfirmed, rumors abound that a sixth team will enter the league next year, possibly in Houston.
The NPF both produces and needs success stories like Chicago's Michelle Gascoigne, Emily Allard and Brittany Cervantes. It needs Akron's Jill Barrett, a rookie success a season ago, and Dallas' Kaitlyn Richardson, the same this season. It needs players who prove themselves in order to maintain its quality of play and keep the interest of fans already earned. But there is scant evidence to suggest it is yet a league capable of making stars, not in the same way college softball does and the national team once did.
Cat Osterman will retire after this season. Jessica Mendoza retired prior to the 2014 season and fellow former Olympian Caitlin Lowe retired prior to this season. Former two-time college player of the year and Canadian Olympian Danielle Lawrie returned after having her first child, but she only returned for a season. Natasha Watley, Andrea Duran and Kretschman can't play forever, even if they make it appear otherwise. Even Abbott, who celebrated her 30th birthday during the final week of July, will at some point leave.
There is talent to fill the void, but there is a scarcity of stars, of names people who don't already follow the league can embrace.
In Chamberlain, college softball's all-time home run champion and arguably its most popular player of at least the past decade, the Pride has a ready-made star on the order of those it has or will soon lose. Preserving her partnership with Pendley, who finished her college career fifth in all-time home runs, helps shine a brighter light on the latter. And in Waldrop, the 2014 USA Softball Player of the Year at Florida State, Chicago gets a pitcher with both talent and a profile. These are the characters to keep a rivalry running.
Pendley has been the most productive of the three, an everyday starter and arguably the league's rookie of the year. Waldrop, overcoming what she described as something akin to a case of the "yips" late in her senior season at Florida State, has been effective as the fourth or fifth arm for the Bandits. The summer has been toughest on Chamberlain, who played through both physical challenges and, by softball standards, considerable scrutiny and demands on her time as she chased the NCAA home run record.
Entering the start of a series against Dallas on Monday, she was hitting .215 with five home runs but also 25 strikeouts in 79 at-bats. A prolific home run hitter in her own college career, Kretschman marveled at what Chamberlain accomplished at Oklahoma and what the numbers might have been without injuries. But that didn't spare her the learning curve.
"To be honest with you, it's not easy being on our team," Kretschman said. "There is a lot of pressure that comes with being on our team and being able to perform all the time. If you don't perform there is someone behind you who was an All-American or an Olympian or whatever that's waiting to take your spot. Once you get passed all of those things, I think you're going to see Lauren be very successful in this league."
The league may struggle to make stars, but it can make players better. And Chamberlain, who appeared at the recent ESPYS as a nominee for best record-breaking performance, needs little help when it comes to visibility. Forget fans; a player on the opposing team stopped her after a recent game to ask for a photo together.
"Mentally I always expect perfection," Chamberlain said of her first season. "And I learned quickly that I had to trust the process of a rookie year all over again. The league is better in every way. In the box, I'm going against everybody's best every single day. There are no breaks, no days off in the league. And vice versa, the pitchers don't see a day off with the types of hitters they are facing. This year was truly the challenge I've been looking for, and I've allowed it to motivate me to work hard and truly strive to step my game up.
"To my advantage, I am playing alongside and gaining advice and knowledge from the best of the best. [It] doesn't get any better than that."
Chamberlain said she is already looking forward to coming back next season stronger and fresher, as opposed to arriving days after the grind of a college season concluded. Waldrop, too, has a list of things she wants to work on during the offseason, altering the speeds on her pitches to keep hitters off-balance and focusing on locations.
Yet the latter is also proof that nothing in NPF is as easy as it seems. Waldrop will soon begin a 10-month internship with Fox Sports. Bright, insightful and articulate, she could well follow a similar path to former All-America pitcher Amanda Scarborough, already a familiar voice on softball broadcasts, or perhaps former Oklahoma State standout Mariah Gearhart, who is working her way up the ladder behind the cameras. But it is difficult to live in both worlds. She wants to play next summer and would love to return to Chicago, but it will require that team or another accommodating a late arrival after her internship. That's the hurdle merely for a second season.
"It makes me think about the future and how long I want to keep playing," Waldrop said of her experience this summer. "And really how sharp I want to be and develop my skills to maybe keep playing for who knows how long -- as long as the game allows me to. You do start thinking about that after seeing Natasha and Monica and Kretschman, who have been playing for so long.
"That they're still able to play the game and still loving it, it does make you think about it a lot."
The game in Chicago didn't need its famous rookies. To have more nights like it in the years to come, the league will.