A few weeks ago, one of the UCLA's better athletes—tailback Kevin Williams, a fifth-round choice of the Denver Broncos in the recent NFL draft—dug into the batter's box at the Bruins' softball field and stared out at the pitcher. On the mound was senior Lisa Fernandez, who has led the UCLA softball team to two NCAA championships in the last three years. Battle lines had been drawn.
"Kevin had been giving me stuff all year, saying softball was a weak sport and that he could hit me, no problem," says Fernandez. "So I said, fine, come hit me."
Fernandez's underhand fastball has been clocked at 65 mph, and she blew the first pitch by a clueless Williams. He swung at the second pitch, a ferocious curve, and whiffed. He whiffed on the next pitch too. In fact, on 30 or so swings, Williams made contact only twice—both infield taps that dribbled foul.
"I have to admit," Fernandez says, "that was a lot of fun."
Almost as much fun as playing when it counts. This season Fernandez led the nation in hitting (.507) and was second in pitching with a 0.26 ERA. The Bruins open defense of their national title next week, and they expect Fernandez to pitch every one of their games in the NCAA tournament. And why not? In last year's Women's College World Series, she capped a 24-0 regular season by starting five of UCLA's six postseason games and pitching a shutout in all five. (The 35 consecutive scoreless innings is a tournament record.) This season she takes a 27-1 record into the playoffs, with her only loss being a 2-0 heartbreaker to Arizona that ended a 42-game personal winning streak.
Fernandez has a four-year record of 87-5, with a 0.22 ERA, 709 strikeouts, nine no-hitters and three perfect games. What's more, she has won eight gold medals as a member of various U.S. amateur teams in national and international competition, and the last two years she has been named a U.S. Olympic Athlete of the Year in her sport.
"She's got it all. It's scary," says teammate Kelly Inouye, who first caught Fernandez when the two were 10-year-olds playing in the Paramount Girls Softball League in Lakewood, Calif. "She throws so hard. Catching her all these years—my body is a wreck."
Fernandez learned the game from her parents. Her father, Antonio, played semipro baseball in Cuba before fleeing to the U.S. in 1962. Her mother, Emilia, a native of Puerto Rico, played in several softball leagues after she met Antonio in Los Angeles and they settled in Lakewood.
"My first game as a pitcher was when I was eight years old," says Fernandez. "I walked 20 batters and lost 28-0. But I just resolved that I would do better the next time out, and gradually I became better."
Now Fernandez has a six-pitch repertoire, including a bizarre-looking "backdoor changeup," which she throws backhanded. Her best pitch, though, is probably her riseball. It jumps almost a foot as it passes through the strike zone.
In an attempt to cut down on pitcher-dominated games, the NCAA this season introduced a livelier, polyurethane-core, neon-yellow ball that at first gave most pitchers, including Fernandez, fits. "I think it's good for the game, and it has helped my hitting a lot," she says. "But I'm being hit a lot more too."
Fernandez hopes to play in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, where softball will be a demonstration sport. Someday she would like to open a softball academy and help design equipment tailored to female players. Maybe she'll have her own signature line of mitts.
"I always wonder whether I've had an impact on this sport or not," she says. "But then I go into a restaurant or I'm at the mall, and somebody says, 'Aren't you that softball player?' Then I know I have."