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Practice makes perfect for Russian softball team playing in Freeport

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Russian softball player Tatyana Zhuravleva slaps hands with teammates during the game against Freeport at Freeport Community Park in Freeport on Wednesday June 19, 2013.
Erica Dietz | Valley News Dispatch
Russian softball player Anastasiaa Zaiceva takes a photo of a teammate during the game against the Freeport Thunder on Wednesday, June 19, 2013, at Freeport Community Park in Freeport.

The coach of the Russian girls softball under-17 team, Mikhail Ilukhin, nodded politely as umpires and Team B.A.S.E.C. coach Mike Bungo discussed possible ways to keep the 6:30 p.m. game at Freeport Community Park shorter than the recently completed contest, which stretched almost three hours and ended with a blowout win in favor of the guests.

Maybe a run limit? Or a time limit?

Ilukhin leaned in after a minute or so and offered his thoughts with the limited English he knew.

“Seven innings?” he asked as he held up seven fingers. “Yeah, seven innings.”

Bungo and the umpires shrugged — it was settled; they'd play until the game ended or the sun went down.

Maximum time on the diamond against opponents is what matters most to the Russians, who arrived in the area Monday night and began to compete — in games with no official score — against local teams. The under-17 team spent its afternoon and evening playing two games at Freeport Community Park, while an under-13 team finished two contests at Freeport's high school field.

“Practice, practice, practice,” Ilukhin said of his team's goal for the visit to Freeport and the surrounding area, which will last until July 8. “Fun, fun, fun.”

The teams are part of the Moscow area-based Carrousel sports club, which ranks among the country's best in terms of softball success. They traveled here to see how they would measure up against Americans.

Carrousel's older girls made quite a first impression.

Lefty Tatyana Zhuravleva and righty Nina Zakaznikova, both 16, pitched fastballs in the low 60 mph range, a speed that would make them strong high school varsity hurlers. Their work against the Freeport Thunder, an under-15 team, gave the hosts little reason to cheer until late in the first game, when Karlie Hill, a sophomore starter for Freeport this spring, hit an RBI double to the right-center fence.

“They were honestly better than I expected,” said Hill, who, as a catcher, complimented the Russians for their aggressive baserunning.

Bungo, a Fox Chapel parent whose Team B.A.S.E.C. consists of girls from seven school districts, anticipated the discipline and confidence that defined the Russians' style of play. His team matched up evenly with Carrousel.

“Russia is a country that you've always had to respect, sports-wise,” he said. “They take it seriously.”

Ilukhin, who played baseball in Russia, runs two practices a day Monday through Friday with his team at the boarding school the girls attend west of Moscow.

Softball is the top priority for these girls, almost all of whom have played for five-plus years. They welcome the three-week grind of games that sits ahead — among the few planned diversions is a trip to Kennywood.

The Russians' knowledge of English is limited, but they know “Play ball,” and they're ready to hear it often through the rest of the month.

Bill West is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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