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Bombers away! to national games

Amanda Kendall grits her teeth _ decked in red and blue Bomber-color braces _ then smiles and zeroes in on her target, ready for her rocket delivery.

"Want to buy a raffle ticket to support the Lady Bombers going to nationals?" she says, recalling the pitch she used to chase down a potential donor in a supermarket parking lot.

Thirteen-year-old Kendall throws 56-mph softballs the same way she sells tickets.

"She's really aggressive and doesn't get shaken by anything out there," says David Machen, assistant coach of the 14-and-under Lady Bombers softball team anchored by ace pitcher Kendall. "She has the attitude she's going to go out and take the batter herself."

Proudly sporting her trademark No. 00, Kendall is just one of the 14 personalities on the fast-pitch team bound for the National Softball Association championships in St. Louis on July 1-4.

Second baseman Dana Vickery displays Kendall's similar verve, sending a letter to New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, asking him to support their cause. And why not? With a record of 26-3, all the 14-and-under Bombers need are the wheels to get them to the Independence Day weekend festivities.

They will not be the only ones making the Clearwater-to-St. Louis trek. For the first time in the Lady Bombers' history, all three of the youth teams _ 14-, 16- and 18-and-unders _ are going to nationals. No other program in the state can boast such a triple play.

For the 14-and-under gang, it is another excuse to stay up gossiping until 3 a.m., trash the coaches' room and play endless card games.

But don't let the giggles or the teenage antics fool you. Right now the Lady Bombers have only one game on their minds.

"We have a blast when we're not playing ball," says Thom Kendall, the team manager and Amanda's father. "But half an hour before game time and during game time, they're two different kids."

The roster includes the shy substitute outfielder and the shortstop deliberately playing the role of the ditzy blond during practice. But what makes this team successful, according to players and coaches, is that personalities click without cliques.

"We get along really well this year, nobody is in separate groups," says Amanda Kendall.

Though hand-picked from across Pinellas County, their common experience unites them. They have been playing competitive softball for half their lives, shuttling from school games to Little League games to Bomber tournaments. When they're not talking about their games they are practicing together or spending an hour separately at the batting cages.

"Everybody asks me, "Like, how can you play softball so much?' " says leftfielder Tracy Hammett, who leads the team in runs batted in with 20, including 10 extra-base hits. "You just enjoy it. You just like to do it, and that's what keeps you going."

Since she was 10, Kendall has pitched from a mound built in her back yard. She was born into a softball family: Her older sister, Deyon, was the Times' Pinellas player of the year for Seminole High School this year.

Amanda Kendall isn't the only Lady Bomber living with a sibling's success. Catcher Laura Griffith, 13, has started in that position since her sister Amy, also a standout at Seminole, taught her.

"She's really into being back there, which is very unusual," Machen says. "It's very unusual for someone who wants to go catch all the time, and doesn't ask to be taken out because she is tired."

Griffith even wanted to play four straight games when her team was winning the Illusions-Knights and Sting tournaments that qualified it for nationals last month. She has thrown out nine of 15 runners attempting to steal second base.

Centerfielder Sara Donnelly, 14, is equally fearsome on defense. "She's just tremendous, very quick out there," Kendall says. "She's thrown batters out at home tagging up at third and thrown them out at second base." As the lead-off hitter, she also has the best on-base percentage on the team.

Amanda Kendall will take her team-leading record (15-1) on the mound for yet another tournament this weekend. The three Lady Bombers teams are among 56 Florida squads competing in the Tampa Heat Wave State Tournament at the University of South Florida _ a warm-up for nationals.

"I can't tell you of a better weekend than spending it with the girls, watching them play and seeing them progress," Machen says.

"Girls are much easier to coach than boys are; they don't come out acting like they know it all. They don't have all these habits that boys do. I think it's an advantage. The boys kind of get this macho thing."

All the same, these girls have an attitude of their own.

To see the games

Fifty-six Florida squads will compete in the Tampa Heat Wave State Tournament at the University of South Florida today through Sunday at the USF softball fields, 4202 E Fowler Ave., and the Temple Terrace Recreation Center, 6610 Whiteway Drive. Games begin about 6 tonight and play continues all day Saturday and Sunday. A weekend pass is $4 for entry into both parks and a program; daily admission to each park is $1 for adults and 50 cents for children under 12.