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The Wonder From Down Under : Australian Softball Player Kerry Dienelt Finds a Home at UCLA

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Women softball players come from far and near to play for UCLA Coach Sharron Backus, but infielder Kerry Dienelt probably holds the record for having come the farthest.

Dienelt, who has played for UCLA teams that have won three consecutive NCAA titles, is a native of Darwin, Australia, located in the province of the Northern Territories. The town has a population of about 17,000 and is far from Australia’s population centers of Sydney and Melbourne.

Under Backus, UCLA has won six of nine national softball titles that have been under the auspices of the NCAA, and many players are attracted to the school because of the team’s reputation as a softball power.

But Dienelt (pronounced DYE-knelt) came to UCLA almost by accident. She was first discovered not by Backus, but by former Stanford Coach Tammy Brown, now the coach at the University of Oregon.

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Brown saw Dienelt play with the Australian women’s national team in 1986 at an international tournament in Vancouver, British Columbia. She soon realized that the 5-foot, 10-inch Aussie had rare talent.

Brown, who was between jobs since Stanford had dropped women’s softball, was unable to recruit Dienelt and recommended the first baseman to Backus.

When Dienelt returned home from the tournament, she sent Backus a copy of the only videotape ever made of her playing softball. She also sent along academic transcripts from her secondary school, Dripstone.

Backus liked what she saw on the video and said to herself, “Hey. This kid’s terrific.” She offered Dienelt a scholarship.

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Dienelt was happy to accept the scholarship and make the journey to Los Angeles, although she would be thousands of miles from her home, family and friends. “I always wanted to play softball in America,” she said. “I did not have a clue about college or what they were like.”

She soon became clued in to life, the curriculum and softball at UCLA.

“I didn’t really know anything about UCLA’s national championships when I first came here,” she said. But being on three Bruin NCAA winners “was really an honor and I’ll be looking out for a fourth one too.”

For Dienelt, the transition from Australian to American softball was not easy. As a freshman, she had only a .206 batting average, and her average dropped to .179 last year.

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But she hit .304 this year, fourth-best on the team, and in each of her three College World Series appearances she was named to the all-tournament team.

In this year’s NCAA championship game, Dienelt had two hits and drove in a run to help the Bruins to a 2-0 victory over Fresno State. “She’s a money player,” Backus said. “She talks softly, but she carries a big stick.”

Dienelt will play for the Australian national team in an international tournament in July at Normal, Ill., and UCLA All-American senior Lisa Longaker and standout freshman Lisa Fernandez will be pitching for the United States.

Dienelt is eager to play against her Bruin teammates. “I’ll throw the bat at the ball to get a hit if I have to,” she said.

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A first baseman for most of her three seasons at UCLA, Dienelt also filled in for Fernandez at third base this season when the latter was pitching.

Dienelt said the togetherness of the Bruins makes college softball more rewarding than the international game, although international competition is tougher.

“I’m not taking anything away from representing my country, but when you play for Australia, you don’t get to know the players because you may be together for only about three weeks.

“With all the things you go through as a college team, you grow together, and it actually (becomes like) a family. You laugh and cry together, win and lose together. (College softball) is a lot more emotional.”

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Dienelt is glad to have acquired her college family because she misses her own close-knit family. Her father is a tax collector and used to play baseball. Her mother still plays organized softball and she has two brothers who are baseball players.

Dienelt made a visit to home during Christmas, but that she doesn’t “get home that often. It’s so expensive and so far away.”

Dienelt particularly misses the camping trips she used to take with her family to the outback, the wild expanse of barren land in Australia’s interior, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Darwin.

Dienelt occasionally wishes that she were in the outback, trying to catch fish known as barramundi, or watching crocodiles sunning themselves along river banks.

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Dienelt, a psychology major, might settle in the United States after she graduates because she thinks there will be more job opportunities for her in America than in Australia. She might go into coaching or sports psychology.

“In Australia, most major sports have team psychologists,” she said. “They help athletes by teaching them proper breathing techniques or helping them deal with anxiety.”

UCLA’s season began in early February and finished May 28. The Bruins played 69 games and won 62.

The seasons are long, but Dienelt doesn’t resent the time she spends playing softball. She finds she can do without the game for about two weeks after the season ends. After a couple of weeks, however, “I miss being out there running around.”

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