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Classic makes Tampa fast-pitch central next weekend

University of South Florida softball coach Hildred Deese put a telephone conversation on hold Thursday afternoon to give assistant Ken Eriksen some news that couldn't wait: "Joan Joyce is coming to our tournament."

Joyce, one of the greatest pitchers in the history of women's fast-pitch softball and a professional in the late 1970s and early '80s, is coaching at a high school in Boca Raton, Deese said. And next weekend, Joyce will pile her players into a van headed for Tampa to see fast-pitch softball at its best.

That's what will be on display in the USF Softball Classic, a 24-team college tournament played Friday through March 13 at the Greco Complex.

"This is the best of the best at this tournament," Deese said. "If you want to see softball you can be satisfied with five games every two hours."

The Classic will feature nine teams ranked among the preseason Top 25: No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Oklahoma State, No. 8 Iowa, No. 9 Florida State, No. 14 Texas A&M, No. 17 Notre Dame, No. 18 Virginia, No. 21 Illinois-Chicago and No. 24 Robert Morris.

Games are scheduled every two hours on the four fields at the Greco Complex, as well as on the Bulls' home field on the USF campus. Play will be from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Games are set to start at 9 a.m. Sunday, with the championship scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

Teams will be divided into four pools of six. The top two teams from each pool advance to single-elimination play starting at 8 p.m. Saturday.

The USF Softball Classic has doubled in size since its first season, 1986, thanks to "just a lot of hustling from the staff," said Deese, in her 10th season at USF.

"We just worked real hard to make it a first-class tournament in its organization and the things we provide for coaches coming in. We bring in umpires from all over the country rather than just using home umpires. And the weather here brings a lot of Northern schools in."

With high schools and junior colleges in the state required to play fast pitch next season, many coaches are gathering information on how to change their programs from slow to fast.

At the Classic, good examples will be everywhere.

The showcase team is UCLA, which has won eight national championships, including four of the past six. (The Bruins lost to Arizona in last year's final.) Sharron Backus is collegiate softball's all-time winningest coach at 706-136-3 (.849 percent).

The Bruins also feature the player many have called the hardest throwing pitcher in the world, senior DeeDee Weiman. She has thrown 10 career no-hitters and last year led the NCAA in strikeouts per seven innings.

Pool B is the tournament's toughest, with five of six teams among the Top 25, including UCLA and No.

9 Florida State, who play at noon Saturday on Field 3 at Greco.

South Florida will start the weekend with a regular-season game against UCLA at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Greco Complex.

USF Softball Classic

Where: Greco Complex on 50th Street in Tampa, near USF, and at the USF softball field.

When: 9 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. March 13.

Who: Pool A _ No. 18 Virginia, Ball State, East Carolina, Michigan, Oklahoma, Sam Houston; Pool B _ No. 2 UCLA, No. 9 Florida State, No. 17 Notre Dame, No. 21 Illinois-Chicago, No. 24 Robert Morris, Penn State; Pool C _ No. 3 Oklahoma State, Indiana, Miami-Ohio, South Carolina, South Florida, Temple; Pool D _ No. 8 Iowa, No. 14 Texas A&M, Central Michigan, North Carolina, Western Illinois, Winthrop.

Admission: $3 per day for adults, $1 per day for non-USF students; $5 for a three-day pass for adults.