OKLAHOMA CITY — It's a new era for the U.S. national softball team.
No Olympic gold medals to their names, and no hopes for one in the immediate future, but still the same winning tradition to uphold.
The NCAA is telling softball teams to provide a list of bat models to umpires for inspection before games and will give teams a choice when a delayed dead ball is called.
Both changes for next season were announced Wednesday by the playing rules oversight panel.
A delayed dead ball occurs when a runner leaves base before the ball leaves the pitcher's hands. Umpires will signal when the runner leaves early but the play will continue. If the runner is called out, the pitch would not count.
Batters who stay inside the batter's box will not be required to attempt avoiding getting hit by a pitch to be awarded first base.
The committee also will require all brick, wood and cement backstops and home run fences to be padded before 2016.
— The Associated Press
In their first international game on their home soil, a new batch of Americans was up to the task. Stacy May-Johnson homered, Rhea Taylor had a two-run triple and the United States beat the Czech Republic 7-2 Thursday night at the World Cup of Softball.
"They set a high bar for us, and there's definitely a tradition that we want to carry over," said Chelsea Thomas, who threw two scoreless innings to earn the save.
"We still do the same things pregame as the older alums and it's kind of cool that it kind of carries over. We're a new team but I think the talent's there."
Superstar Jennie Finch retired from the U.S. team during last year's World Cup, and Jessica Mendoza, Cat Osterman and Natasha Watley are among several former Olympic gold medalists who decided not to return to the team this year.
Not a single player with Olympic experience remains on the team, and only three even had national team experience. Instead of the veterans who once were a dominant force in international softball, this is an inexperienced bunch.
"I don't think we go about trying to replace them," May-Johnson said. "We aren't them and I think that as soon as we try to be them, we're going to be in some trouble."
Taylor put the United States ahead to stay with her two-run triple to deep right field in the second inning. May-Johnson's solo shot bumped the lead to 6-2 after the Czechs scored twice in the top of the fourth. She also singled twice.
First-year coach Ken Eriksen said his youngsters are still learning "it's a little bit different when you're representing the entire country than it is one school."
"I think that when your eyes start wandering toward the stands or toward the cameras or whatever, it's a distraction to what we're doing on the field," May-Johnson said. "So, we're just trying to focus on what we do well."
"As long as we keep our focus on ourselves, then we'll grow into that team we're trying to become," she added.
The Americans have never been accustomed to losing, though.
"From what everybody's keeps saying in the past about 'We've been this' and 'We've been that,' I've been with this program for a long time. We never ever thought, not one time, that we would ever enter a game and blow somebody out," Eriksen said.
"It just so happened to fall that way because we were more relentless than the other programs. That's what the big deal about teaching these young kids is right now is they have to be relentless from the first pitch until they get on the bus going back."
Softball has been dropped from the Olympics for both 2012 and 2016 and the earliest it could return would be 2020.
Facing that future, many top stars retired after the 2008 Games. Others have stepped aside since then or turned their attention to building the professional game. Without them, the Americans lost three times to top rival and 2008 gold medalist Japan this month at the Canada Cup, including in the championship game.
"In Canada, we were the team that everyone wanted to lose, so it's really nice to have the home field here and to have all of our fans out here cheering us on," Thomas said.
This national team is stocked with players who are in college or just finished it. Taylor was a part of three Women's College World Series teams at Missouri, playing her last college game on the same field in Oklahoma City less than two months earlier.
Thomas, her former teammate, relieved Whitney Canion (1-0) with two runners on in the sixth. She got a double-play grounder and struck out cleanup hitter Eva Rendlova to end the threat.
Kelly Grieve had a pair of infield RBI singles, including one when Taylor scored from second in the sixth.
After being retired in order the first time through the lineup, the Czech Republic got to Canion for two runs in the fourth.
Lucie Petraskova broke up Canion's no-hitter with a soft line single to right, and Dina Pfeiferova followed with an infield single. Canion then uncorked a high wild pitch to allow both runners to advance. Lenka Jaklova had an RBI groundout, and cleanup hitter Rendlova squeezed in the second run.
The Czechs were routed by Australia 11-0 earlier in the day in a game stopped after five innings because of the mercy rule. Australia also beat Great Britain 7-1 and Japan, last year's runner-up, beat Canada 9-6 in eight innings.