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Young softball players hopeful for 2016
Decision on sport's status for Olympics expected next month

OKLAHOMA CITY - For years, the likes of Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and Lisa Fernandez have been carving out a niche for U.S. softball and giving young women a chance to reach the Olympics.

With softball dropped from the 2012 Games in London, the players who grew up admiring the pioneers feel the heartache the worst.

'It's devastating because that's definitely been a dream, but I think that we're just fighting to get it back into the Olympics for the younger girls that can play,' Jenae Leles said during the Americans' run to the World Cup of Softball title here over the past week.

Leles won Women's College World Series titles at Arizona in 2006 and 2007 and was on track to play for the U.S. in 2012. She made the U.S. national team this year but now faces at least a seven-year wait for her chance at the Olympics, if it ever comes.

The International Olympic Committee caused an uproar in U.S. softball by excluding the sport from the London Games. Next month, the IOC executive committee is expected to recommend two sports to be added into the 2016 Olympics.

The full IOC then decides in August which sports among softball, rugby, baseball, golf, roller sports, squash and karate will get in.

For Leles and nine other rookies on the U.S. squad, along with countless other women, that decision is key to whether they will fulfill their Olympic dreams.

'If it comes back for us in 2016, I'm going to be there as long as they give me the uniform,' said U.S. outfielder Kaitlin Cochran, who won the NCAA title with Arizona State in 2008. 'It doesn't matter. I'm going to find a way to get there.'

The pursuit of the Olympics is a sacrifice for softball players, since it's difficult to earn a living playing a sport that does have two professional leagues in the U.S.

Alissa Haber, who finished her junior year at Stanford before making the U.S. team this year, finds herself facing a tough decision.

'The more and more I play, the more and more I think about it. I thought when softball was taken out of the Olympics I wasn't going to be around for 2016,' Haber said. 'But just being out here playing and seeing all these older players that still continued playing even though they don't have college teams to play for - they still play for the pro leagues, so I know there are opportunities out there for me.'

And if softball doesn't get into the Olympics in 2016?

'I'd take on the world in other avenues,' Haber said.

At this point, there's not much the players can do but cross their fingers and hope the IOC rules in their favor. The International Softball Federation has put together a 'Back Softball' campaign and, along with the other six sports, made its pitch to committee members last month.

Former U.S. pitcher Michele Smith joined Danielle Stewart of Australia and Saskia Kosterink of the Netherlands in asking the crowd here to support the cause. Stewart - a current player - even passed out fliers to fans.

'We just need to get the word out there. That's the biggest thing we can do right now,' U.S. third baseman Andrea Duran said.

The U.S. national team has already turned toward the future, following the retirement of seven players who'd played in at least the last two Olympics. The question is what that future holds.

'When I was so young and wanted to play softball, I wanted to play for this team. This was my dream and 2012, I always thought was going to be my year,' Cochran said. 'But, hey, things change and hopefully 2016 will be it now.'