Former La Plata High School standout Carrie Higdon says the prestige and competition in high school softball don't quite compare to that of the Big League Softball World Series. As a member of the Maryland District 7 championship team in 2003 and last year's third-place team, she is eagerly awaiting her chance this summer to return to Kalamazoo, Mich., and reclaim the title.
"The experience is absolutely incredible," said Higdon, a pitcher and infielder who will play for George Washington University next season. "It's such a neat thing. You go out there and play teams from all over the world. Where else are you going to get the opportunity to do something like that?"
About 15 area all-stars will try to continue Southern Maryland's rich history at the World Series in August. The District 7 team has won five of the past eight titles, so expectations are high.
"Down in this area, people do expect" the team to qualify for the World Series, said assistant coach Glenn Larnerd Jr.
"In a way, I think the players do expect it also. They know they have to play well and work at it. Teams nowadays are not going to hand it to us."
This year's team will have to overcome a new obstacle. The East Region tournament has been moved from Waldorf to West Haven, Conn. But if the team wins the regional tournament and advances to the World Series, Higdon says the players will face competition unlike any other.
"During high school ball, you have good teams, but there are some that aren't strong at all," she said. "At the Big League World Series, it's consistent. You always play good teams. You have to play on top of your game. If you throw one bad pitch, it could all go downhill."
Part of the tournament's allure, Higdon said, does not involve wins and losses. The players stay with host families and forge relationships with teammates. Also, watching how teams from such countries as the Netherlands and Puerto Rico play and communicate on the field is interesting, she said.
Several key players from last year's team are expected to return, with the notable exception of Abbey Welch, the top pitcher last year. With that corps of experienced players, there will be pressure to succeed.
"You have to be as good as last year's team," Higdon said. "You definitely feel there's pressure on the Southern Maryland girls just because they've done it so many times before."
But before the tournament starts, the Big League regular season has a long way to go. A look at how it's shaping up:
Higdon leads a team that started the season 6-0. She hit .349 with 18 RBI for La Plata last spring. On the mound, she posted a 0.82 ERA and held opponents to a .177 batting average. "When Carrie is pitching, we're in any ballgame," said Coach Tom Morrison, who is also the head coach for the District 7 all-star team. "She has speed, and she has the pitches and the command out on the mound. She's actually throwing the ball much better now than in high school."
Along with Higdon, outfielder-shortstop Megan Alford and utility player Christine Shipyan are expected to power the offense.
Coach David Boyd says his team must score runs by stringing hits together. They won't come with just one swing.
"It's not a big power team," Boyd said. "It's more about singles, bunts, scratch and fight for everything we can get."
Thomas Stone graduate Maggie Donaldson is playing second base. The two-time first-team All-Extra selection batted .328 with 19 runs scored and 11 RBI last spring. Outfielder Betty Jane Tennison and catcher Autumn Boyd, both recent Thomas Stone graduates, anchor the defense.
Considering that eight of the team's 14 players are age 14, the team is focused on development.
"They're just playing with the big kids, and they're doing all right," Coach Ron Travers said. "We went in to become a better team when it's all said and done."
First baseman Brittany Norton is one of the older players who will lead the team in its second season. The Huntingtown High graduate and honorable mention All-Extra pick helped the Hurricanes' inaugural team win the Maryland 3A championship last spring.
Travers is also counting on honorable mention All-Extra left fielder Kirsten Forseth, a recent graduate of Maryland 2A champion Calvert. Patuxent High's Megan Monk is playing second base and anchoring the middle infield.
Calvert American's pitching staff is young but talented, Travers said. Ashley Disque, Rebecca Hillebrand and Jana Lowe will get considerable time on the mound.
St. Mary's Diamondbacks
After fielding a young team in the Diamondbacks' first two seasons, Larnerd has experienced Big League players this summer. The left side of the Diamondbacks' infield may be the league's strongest. Third baseman Kelli Seger and shortstop Kim Fowler will play at Mount St. Mary's College next season. Seger was named first-team All-Extra after leading Huntingtown last spring with a .442 batting average. She also batted in 20 runs and scored 22.
Fowler is one of several players from Larnerd's St. Mary's Ryken team that went 17-10 last spring. Others include Big League veteran first baseman Trish Johnson and catcher Devon Czarzasty. Amanda Hanson, a pitcher from St. Mary's Ryken, had an "outstanding" high school season, Larnerd said.
St. Mary's Storm
In its second season, St. Mary's County's other Big League team is still building. Storm Coach O.J. Lewis hopes to help his young players improve while raising the level of fast-pitch softball in an area known more for its slow-pitch leagues.
"My goal is just to develop the players, especially the ones returning to high school next year," Lewis said.
He said his team has a desire to face the area's best players -- particularly at the plate -- in order to hasten its development.
"They're not afraid," he said. "They're young girls, but they step up. They're not afraid to swing the bat. They don't get intimidated, and they do the things they need to do to make themselves better."