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Dickmann Discovers New Pitch: Harmony : College softball: Northridge pitcher heads into NCAA Division II regional armed with inner peace.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Forget the milestone of 100 victories and the challenge of returning Cal State Northridge to the top in NCAA Division II softball.

Forget the All-American honors, the national championship and the opportunity of playing professionally in Italy, which awaits this summer.

The important thing is that Debbie Dickmann is happy again. And if anything happens on the softball field to change that, well, it will be only temporary.

The diamond was once her best friend, but no more.

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Now she is.

All the accolades and attention Dickmann earned over the years as one of the nation’s top pitchers never brought her what she wanted most: inner peace and security.

To find those elusive qualities, she had to look within herself. She found them, but only after a lengthy struggle.

“I found out that I don’t need softball to make me happy,” Dickmann said during a break at practice this week. “I don’t need it. I want it. There’s a difference. Before, I felt like it was something I needed to do.”

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The result of Dickmann’s new outlook is as plain to see as the intense expression on her face, said Gary Torgeson, Northridge softball coach and Dickmann’s part-time sparring partner the past four seasons.

“Look at her when she’s out there pitching,” he said. “She doesn’t look scared. She doesn’t look worried. She doesn’t look concerned. She just has that look like, ‘I’m gonna kick your butt.’ Totally focused.

“And she’s playing relaxed. Her rhythm and sync are so smooth right now that she’s just a portrait out there. She is pitching with phenomenal grace.”

Dickmann enters today’s Midwest regional game against Southern Illinois Edwardsville with a record of 99-20, 70 shutouts and a career earned-run average of 0.49 that is best seen under a wet slide.

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Those statistics should be of concern enough to Southern Illinois, which has never faced Dickmann. Southern Illinois has only seen her name on the honors roll since she led Northridge to a national championship in 1987, her freshman season.

What CSUN’s playoff opponents might not know is that Dickmann lately has pitched even better than her career numbers indicate.

“Since the start of April, Debbie Dickmann has decided that she is a great pitcher,” Torgeson said. “She’s pitching better right now than she ever has. She’s in total control.”

Top-ranked Northridge (46-19) has won 16 of its past 18 games and is 13-1 against Division II competition since losing, 5-0, to Cal State Bakersfield in the championship game of the Hayward tournament April 8.

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The date is significant because it marked the first time this season that Dickmann was benched during a game of any significance.

At the time, Torgeson told a reporter that Dickmann had a sore arm. Dickmann shrugged and referred all questions to the coach.

Truth be told, Dickmann was not hurt. Her arm was merely stiff. But Torgeson, frosted by all the ice he saw taped to his pitcher’s wing, grounded her without asking about it.

“We needed to flush the real problem out,” Torgeson said. “I didn’t pitch her for two reasons. One, if the arm was really bad, I didn’t want to take a chance. Two, if she wasn’t really hurt, then the team had to know and Debbie had to be confronted.”

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Bakersfield, last year’s national champion, had hit Dickmann better than any other Division II team in the past. Was she avoiding the Roadrunners?

Dickmann explained herself at a team meeting after Northridge returned from the tournament, claiming the move was preventive medicine.

“I wasn’t in pain, but I always thought if I couldn’t go out there and do everything that I’m capable of doing, then I wasn’t helping them,” she said.

Her teammates disagreed.

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“They believe that I can go out there with one arm tied behind my back and could still help them,” Dickmann said. “So that’s what I’m going to do.”

Her teammates have noticed the change. In games she doesn’t start, Dickmann no longer ices down her arm before the end of a game. If nothing else, the knowledge that the team’s 6-foot-1 ace is ready if needed comforts the Matadors.

Perhaps for the first time, the team and star pitcher understand each other. It wasn’t always so.

Torgeson often has described Dickmann as “a time bomb ready to off.” The night she pitched a no-hitter against Florida Southern in the 1987 Division II championship game, she sulked while her teammates celebrated on a river-boat ride.

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Why? Only she knows.

Last season, after she was 30-6 with 19 shutouts, Dickmann received a significant snub. The Matadors voted the team MVP award to Heather Lindstrom, a freshman and CSUN’s No. 2 pitcher. Lindstrom pitched well, finishing 22-6, but the vote seemed as much anti-Dickmann as it was pro-Lindstrom.

“I’ve been dealing with that kind of thing all my life,” Dickmann said. “Sometimes people are vengeful. Sometimes they’re jealous. I’ve been dealing with parents ever since I was nine who were jealous of my ability.

“It’s over now. I don’t think about it. I feel like I’m a big enough person to say, ‘Hey, that’s the way you felt and that’s the way you are,’ and leave it at that.”

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Dickmann admits that two years ago she would have been unable to leave it alone. She still harbored too much anger. Her reputation for moodiness and self-centeredness was well-earned, she said.

“After my father died I was mad at the world, I guess,” she said. “I stayed like that for a long time.”

Robert Dickmann introduced his daughter to softball but died from a heart attack in 1982 when she was 13.

“It wasn’t until after my sophomore year that I started seeing how angry I really was,” Dickmann said. “I was wasting all my energy being mad at everybody instead of just being happy. It was like, ‘I have all these awards and everything, how come I’m still not a happy person?’ ”

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Eventually, she found an answer. She was looking in the wrong place.

“It’s funny, people look for success or money or fame or something else, but that’s not where happiness is,” she said.

“It’s in your heart. You just have to find it there.”

Dickmann seems more at ease now than ever before, Torgeson said. On the field and in life.

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“I admit that I thought it was always going to be a battle with her because things never seemed to get any better,” he said. “But she sure is a pleasure to be around now.

“I think she has realized that there are people on this team who care about her. Not just as a pitcher but as a person.”

Dickmann has reciprocated.

“You watch her now and she cheers for everybody,” Torgeson said. “She’s not just into herself anymore, she’s into everybody on the field.

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“For the first time, I think Debbie feels good about Debbie.”

PLAYOFF PREVIEW: C18


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