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The Big Event // SUPER POWERS

WHAT: Softball gold medal game, the United States (7-1) vs. Australia (6-2) or China (5-3).

WHEN: 7 tonight.

ABOUT THE GAME: This is softball's first appearance in the Olympics. Fastpitch softball features nine players; pitchers throw from a mound 40 feet away, reaching speeds of 70 mph.

HOW THEY GOT THERE: The United States beat China 1-0 Monday night to advance to the gold-medal game. Australia beat Japan on Monday and will play China today in the bronze-medal game at 4:30 p.m. The loser of that game gets the bronze and the winner plays the United States for the gold.

U.S. DOMINANCE: The Americans have competed in eight world championships and five Pan American Games and failed to medal only once. During one stretch, the U.S. team went 110-1. Its overall record is 132-13. Though softball generally is dominated by pitching and scores tend to be low, the Americans outscored their opponents 33-3 in their first five games.

HOWEVER: Don't look for this to be a cakewalk, even though the United States is the favorite. The Americans lost 2-1 to the Australians on Friday, and China is the only other team that has beaten the United States since 1986. China beat the Americans 1-0 in August.

ABOUT THE UNITED STATES: Pitcher Lisa Fernandez and shortstop Dot Richardson have led the team thus far.

Fernandez had a perfect game going against Australia through 9 innings until Joanne Brown hit a two-run home run in the 10th to win the game. She retired 29 straight batters in that game, 15 on strikeouts.

Richardson, at 34 the oldest and most decorated player on the team, has led the Americans since she hit the first Olympic home run in the team's first game.

The U.S. team has four other pitchers, all of whom can be overpowering: Lori Harrigan, Michele Smith, Michele Granger and Christa Williams. Williams, 18, is the youngest player on the team.

_ SHARON GINN

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