It will be a special summer for the Chicago Bandits, who are celebrating their 10th season as a professional softball franchise.
Since joining National Pro Fastpitch in 2005, the Bandits have won two league championships (2008, 2011) and, after falling short last season in the four-team league, they are looking for more.
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The Bandits' first series of the 2014 season began on Thursday in Ohio against the Akron Racers. The Bandits will host two games against the Racers at The Ballpark at Rosemont on Saturday (7:35 p.m.) and Sunday (3:05 p.m.).
Last year, the Bandits rode ace pitcher Monica Abbott, reigning NPF Player of the Year Megan Wiggins, all-NPF catcher Kaylyn Castillo and NPF Rookie of the Year Andi Williamson to the best regular season record in the NPF. All four players are still fulfilling obligations with their off-season teams in Japan.
That core can't return fast enough, especially Abbott, who earned nearly half of the club's 36 wins last summer.
"Monica is a workhorse and is a pitcher that seems to get better as the season goes on and she definitely wants to be a leader, both in the clubhouse and on the field," Bandits general manager Aaron Moore said. "Pitching wins championships, and we're very happy and honored to have one of the best."
Abbott finished last season with a 17-4 pitching record and led the NPF with a 0.93 earned run average. Over 128.2 innings pitched, she struck out 189 batters and allowed just 17 earned runs.
"I'm proud to be back with my Bandits family for the 2014 season and to compete for a championship," Abbott said when she re-signed in March.
Once again, the four-team NPF will feature a new team. This season the Pennsylvania Rebellion replaces the Carolina Diamonds, which were known as the NPF Diamonds, the Tennessee Diamonds, the Rockford Thunder and the Texas Thunder in other years.
Two players with local connections, Natalie Hernandez of the University of Illinois-Chicago and Kirsten Verdun of DePaul, earned spots on the Bandits roster after a tryout earlier this week.
"They both kind of fit into some holes that we had," GM Aaron Moore said. "Kirsten will come in and be able to throw right away for us and make an impact pitching for us … and Natalie is a great hitter from UIC and she has the ability to play multiple positions for us, so she will be able to come in a be a true utility."
All-NPF pitcher Michelle Gascoigne also can't be with the team just yet. She at the College World Series as grad assistant for Oklahoma.
The Bandits signed their last three draft picks on Thursday. Pitcher Estela Pinon, who was drafted No. 4 overall by Chicago, played her final two seasons at Arizona. The Bandits also have signed right-handed pitcher and No. 5 overall draft selection Sara Moulton, a four-time All-Big Ten selection at the University of Minnesota.
The final draft pick added to the roster was infielder Cheyenne Coyle, who played at Arizona State and Florida. The No. 13 overall pick, she had 47 home runs and 160 RBI in three collegiate seasons.
See 'em live:
Single-game tickets for Bandits games range from $7 to $16. For more ticket information, visit chicagobandits.com or call (877) 722-6348.
Hear 'em live:
For the second consecutive season, Bandits home games will be streamed online at no cost. To access the live video, fans can visit highschoolcube.com and search for Chicago Bandits.
Congrats to Sky forward Elena Delle Donne, who was named the Eastern Conference player of the week after averaging nearly 24 points per game over the first week of the season. It is the fifth such honor of Delle Donne's young career. Last year, she also won WNBA Rookie of the Month honors four times, and ultimately was named the WNBA's rookie of the year.
• Patricia Babcock McGraw covers the Sky and is a sideline reporter for Sky TV broadcasts. Contact her by email at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter@babcockmcgraw.