When they talk about the art of recruiting athletes, maybe Dean Smith, John Thompson and Barry Switzer should consult George Stephens.

Stephens, even at the age of 40, was an all-America major fast-pitch softball player. Four years ago, Stephens decided to get back on the national level in fast-pitch softball so he set out to assemble a team from scratch.

With Stephens, 51, doing the recruiting and managing, Annapolis Radiator, in just its fourth year of existence, earned its third consecutive bid to a national championship tournament by winning the Amateur Softball Association's Central Atlantic Region tournament in July at Wheaton Regional Park.

Proving a good recruiter knows he never has enough depth, Stephens picked up a backup pitcher {which is allowed by ASA rules} for the region tournament and the national tournament in Springfield, Mo. Sept. 12-20. Who was Stephens' idea of a second pitcher to take some of the load off 6-foot-8, 85-mph-throwing righthander Mike Ohl? No one less than a legend.

Ty Stofflet, 46, and considered the nation's premier fast-pitch pitcher of the past 15 years, had two victories and one save in the regional tournament. Ohl, who is 41-11 this season and has an earned run average of about 1.00, had three wins and two saves in the tournament.

Although Stofflet's windmill may have lost a few rpm's, his change-up remains one of the best. Stephens will rotate the two in the national tournament, hoping to use Stofflet in night games, when his variation of pitches is most deceptive.

"I don't know why Ty wasn't pitching for another team in the tournament," said Stephens, who convinced the veteran to make the two-hour commute from his home in Copely, Pa. "All I know was that he was available and I went after him. Maybe no one else called him because they couldn't imagine him being available."

Stephens, who works for the Department of Defense, has put together a veteran team that has improved each season. Annapolis Radiator was 47-14 in its first year; 51-19 (and a loser in two straight in the International Softball Congress tournament) its second season and 56-11 (14th of 56 teams in the ISC tournament) last year. The team is 51-17 this year.

Among the team's stars are center fielder Avon Meacham of Mitchellville, who was on the U.S. Pan American Games team; third baseman Billy Bussey of Severn; left fielder Richard (Rook) Rogers of Arundel and designated hitter Paul Custred of Springfield.

For followers of slow-pitch softball used to seeing stars with batting averages of .600 or better, Annapolis Radiator's offensive statistics will not be impressive. But in a game dominated by pitchers, Annapolis' .240 team average rates as one of the best in the East among major level teams.

Most Annapolis Radiator players elected to play for Stephens for one reason.

"If you want to play softball with your friends, be competitive and win some games, that's fine," said Bussey, 38, who spent a year in the Houston Astros minor league system and leads Annapolis this year with a .325 batting average and 38 runs batted in. "But if you want to go to world tournaments and win, that's different. With Mike Ohl, you get him three runs a ballgame and you feel pretty good."

"The fantasy that came to my life through George Stephens was the pro fantasy of having an organization of people who respect each other for what we are," said Rogers, 32, a construction contractor, who said he will retire after this season. "We know what it takes to win, but we also know what it takes to lose."

Skip DuVall's Potomac Drillers found that out the hard way. They lost to Annapolis, 6-5, in the final of the Central Atlantic tournament. In the other seven games between the teams this year, Potomac is 5-2.

"I think they would have only been the fourth or fifth best team in the ISC Travel League this year," said DuVall. "But it is fair to say, on the weekend that counted, they were the best."

With Ohl and Stofflet, Annapolis Radiator thinks it can be the best again for a week in September.

"We have the potential to finish in the top four," said Rogers, who hit a three-run, sixth-inning homer to beat the Drillers. "Mike Ohl has the potential to do whatever he wants to. We are going to Springfield with the attitude, that if we do some hitting, we will allow him to do just that."