In a League of Their Own : It's a sport with scholarships and, now, medals. Baseball? Hardly. Try girls softball--played fast and hard.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Another Saturday morning, and 11-year-old Laura Miklos of Tustin, her blond hair tied atop her head, is standing in a Tustin schoolyard looking like a Norman Rockwell cover.

But then she starts to move, and the cuteness dissolves. Staring ahead intensely, she leans forward and down, almost into a crouch. As she starts to step forward and uncoil, she cocks her right arm backward slightly, then windmills it forward. It accelerates up, over, behind, then forward again, whipping a seven-ounce, leather-covered warhead toward the girl standing 37 feet away.

The softball, traveling a good 45 m.p.h., rises over the swinging bat, above the catcher's mitt and hits the backstop planks with a tremendous whack.

This is not cute.

This is strike two.

This is girls softball in Southern California--and for that matter, throughout the nation. Americans will get a closer look when women's softball becomes a full-fledged Olympic sport at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta.

Fast-pitch softball, once the pastime of strong-armed factory workers and their sons, has by and large been abandoned to the girls. "The men are playing slow-pitch now because there are so few pitchers, and the boys are playing baseball," said Bill Redmer, editor of FastPitch World magazine.

And the girls are playing it for real. Backed by parents willing to hire professional coaches and travel to distant tournaments, enticed by full-ride athletic scholarships from major universities, girls are playing softball the way boys have played baseball, basketball and football: all out, with an eye to the future.

"When girls were given the right to equal opportunities in sports (with the 1972 passage of Title IX, a federal law forbidding sex discrimination in education programs), fast-pitch softball was one of the sports that really took off," Redmer said. "Softball is probably the most prominent example of where women have made dramatic gain."

The National Federation of State High School Assns. estimated that two years ago there were 270,000 girls playing on high school teams nationwide. In Southern California, participation among girls 8 to 18 has nearly tripled in the past seven years, according to the Amateur Softball Assn. of America, the national governing body of the sport. The association claims to have 2,768 girls teams in Southern California, up from 1,082 in 1987.

"Girls fast-pitch softball is on the increase; there's no doubt about it," said Bill Plummer, an ASSA spokesman. "You can see it gain momentum every year. And Southern California is one of the hotbeds, obviously, because you can play it year-round."

The chain that has existed for so long in boys' sports now has formed around girls softball. High school coaches scout the youth leagues. Colleges scout the high schools. Curious coaches even drop by the neighborhood park to peek at who they might one day be seeing on their fields.

"A great percentage of my players . . . say they started playing at around age 8," said former Cal State Northridge Coach Gary Torgeson, whose team, a perennial power, finished runner-up to Arizona in May in the NCAA Softball World Series. "Five or six years ago, a lot of girls were still trying to play Little League baseball. But now, they're going straight to softball."

Torgeson, who resigned in June after 13 seasons, said the popularity of collegiate softball (the NCAA championship game is televised nationally) is largely responsible for the sport's upswing. Young pitchers, in addition to practicing with their teams, typically whirl long hours in private sessions, dreaming of becoming the next Lisa Fernandez.

Fernandez is college softball's Babe Ruth, a four-time All-American at UCLA and, some say, the best to ever play the game.

Fernandez finished her college career in 1993 with a 93-7 record and a 0.22 earned-run average. She also led the nation in batting in 1993 with a .510 average. She led the Bruins to the NCAA championship in 1992 and is now an assistant coach at UCLA.

"The bigger the hype gets and the more superstars we have, the more the kids are going to want to do it," Torgeson said. "With the Olympics, it's really gonna take off."

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Rick St. Pierre realized the importance of an athletic scholarship early in his daughter's softball career. When Michelle St. Pierre, a pitcher for La Reina High in Thousand Oaks from 1991-93, began to show promise, her father said he would buy her the car of her choice if she earned a scholarship.

During her senior year, Michelle earned two free rides--one to Ohio State University, the other a 1993 Jeep Wrangler. (She recently transferred to St. Mary's in Moraga, Calif.)

For Michelle, who began playing at 10, the payoff was the culmination of years of practice. Her father installed a pitching rubber and backstop in the family's back yard. He also paid for private pitching lessons.

"Softball became a semi-obsession when she was 12 after she began playing with a traveling team," Rick St. Pierre said. "Every year, she got more serious. There was no holding her back."

Girls start as young as 5, but ages 10 to 12 typically are the get-serious years, when many join leagues, coaches say. Bobby Sox Softball, formed in Buena Park in 1963, has an estimated 40,000 players in Hawaii, California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.

Talented players, and ones with enthusiastic and well-heeled parents, soon turn to professional coaches, who charge as much as $60 an hour.

Don Sarno of Brea, who continues to tutor St. Pierre, works with dozens of girls and is one of the sport's most sought-after pitching gurus. He is pitching coach for the U.S. team in this month's world championships.

Laura Miklos' private coach is Richard Hickey of Irvine, who on a recent Friday was seated inside a long net enclosure at a Laguna Hills shopping center, watching her whirl the softball toward a white canvas rectangle 43 feet away.

"She throws more strikes than balls," Hickey said.

Hickey's advice costs $25 per half-hour. That and hitting lessons for Laura and her 13-year-old sister, Jenny, cost her parents $65 a week. That's about the limit right now, said her CPA father, Steve Miklos. Nine-year-old Kimmy, who also plays Bobby Sox, will have to wait for lessons.

Laura can deliver a drop ball, a change-up and a 45-m.p.h. fastball, and she's begun working on softball's supreme pitch, the riser. That's good for her age, but she will have to improve considerably, Hickey said.

"Fifteen years ago, we had primarily male students, but then the girls' scholarships came in," Hickey said. "At that time a high-school pitcher throwing 55 m.p.h. could go to any university if her grades were up. We had girls throwing 50 or 52 and getting full rides in Oregon and New Mexico. Now we have 12- and 15-year-olds throwing better than that."

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Just how good the girls can become was demonstrated in the mid-1980s in Placentia. Michele Granger, tall and long-limbed, pitched 36 no-hitters for Valencia High School with a fastball so good that it eventually reached 70 m.p.h. during her years at UC Berkeley.

Now married and living in Alaska, Granger is a hot prospect for the U.S. Olympic team in 1996.

"She brought a lot of interest to the game," said Sarno, Granger's longtime pitching tutor. "She was in the papers and People magazine a lot. She drew big crowds. Kids see that and want to be like that."

Steve Miklos, a college baseball player until he quit to concentrate on his studies, is president of Tustin Bobby Sox and coaches Laura's team. Wife Janet, who played baseball with her brothers and disliked the tamer girls' sports of her high school days, manages Jenny's team. All three daughters play. Laura and Kimmy are on the same team this year to reduce the time three separate practice and game schedules require.

"The biggest change in girls' sport is that it's now accepted by boys," said Redmer of FastPitch World. "They expect the girls to be athletic."

"I think boys recognize the girls as equal athletes--a lot of them, anyway," Hickey said. "You don't see a lot of difference between a boy and girl at 11 years old. It's really amazing. You put the two up together, they could play on the same team. A lot of dads won't agree with you if they have sons, but it's true."

Attitudes that girls must be protected from hard physical competition still persist, especially in the South, Redmer said. For years there, girls have been allowed to play only slow-pitch softball, in which pitches are lofted toward the plate.

Late last year, parents viewing fast-pitch softball as a road to free college degrees demanded that high schools provide fast-pitch teams for their daughters, and the Kentucky Legislature passed an enabling law. Florida had passed similar legislation.

"There are still a lot of people afraid to see little girls run and jump and slide and be athletically active," Redmer said. "As soon as these dinosaurs fade away, girls will have the opportunity to succeed and fail."

* Times staff writer Vince Kowalick contributed to this story.

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