The windup is a windmill, the delivery a wicked fastball, thrown with a loud and startling "ugghhh" by a pitcher with a mask on her face and a pad strapped to her chest.
The batter freezes. The umpire calls "strike three." And Lauren Gibson, a dominating pitcher for the dominant team at yesterday's Maryland fast-pitch softball tournament, records another strikeout.
Not bad for an 8-year-old who's barely 4 feet tall and weighs maybe 50 pounds - if you weigh her while she's wearing softball cleats.
"It's funny watching the reactions to her," said Lauren's mother, Lorrie Gibson. "They're like, 'She's so cute' until the first ball is thrown. Then it's not so funny anymore."
Lauren Gibson is one of a growing number of girls who, having been introduced to the sport as preschoolers, spend almost every warm weekend playing a circuit of tournaments. At an age when many of her schoolmates aren't far removed from the T-ball clinic, the third-grader carries a national reputation in the fast-growing sport of girls' fast-pitch softball.
Yesterday, as the sun cooked the players and their fans, Lauren and her teammates from northern Anne Arundel County's Lake Shore Lightning pitched and slugged their way to a title in the 10-and-under division at the National Softball Association's biggest-ever Maryland championship tournament.
On the one hand, Lauren Gibson is distinctive, a diminutive girl who nevertheless struck out players more than three years older last year at the youth softball World Series in North Carolina.
"There's probably no one in her class at her age," said Hugh Cantrell, chief executive officer of the National Softball Association.
Jim Rhinehart, a longtime pitching instructor who has tutored Lauren, said, "You compare her to some college pitchers in Division I, and her mechanics are better than theirs."
On the other hand, she's like many other girls who, inspired by the prospect of Olympic gold and the lure of college scholarships, are immersing themselves in unabashedly competitive fast-pitch softball. They practice year-round and, when the weather warms up, travel to the tournaments with parents in tow.
"I know there are a lot of things I could be doing at my house," said DiannaNescio, who has spent every weekend this spring cheering on her three fast-pitch-playing daughters. "I could be cleaning it better. But it's going to be there when they're gone. That's the way I look at it."
Another parent, Bill Hickman, said he bought a boat four years ago, just when his two daughters became interested in softball.
"We live 150 feet from the water, and we've only been on it about 10 times," he said.
Hickman was among the hundreds of parents who assembled yesterday at Howard County's Rockburn Branch Park. Some retreated under umbrellas, canopies and trees to shade themselves from a sizzling sun. Others, undaunted, pressed against the backstop and cheered on their youngsters.
About 90 teams, with girls up to age 18, competed in this year's state tournament. It was played at four sites in Howard and Prince George's counties, and was organized by the National Softball Association, one of the sport's two major sanctioning bodies.
The weekend's turnout was a far cry from that at the organization's first tournament in 1985, which drew five teams in one age division. By the mid-1990s, the number of teams playing in tournaments was barely half what it is today, said tournament director Bill Dowell.
This year, teams such as the Maryland Magic, the Lady Orioles, the Harford Stars and the Maryland Chill battled for the 10-and-under title.
"Maryland probably ranks in the top 10 of hot beds for fast pitch," Cantrell said. "We have some great teams coming out of Maryland."
One of those teams is the Lake Shore Lightning, which has lost two of the more than 40 games it has played this year. Hailing from the sport's Maryland epicenter in northern Anne Arundel County and decked out in teal and orange, the Lightning stormed through the tournament with four straight wins.
It was a festive gathering. The girls urged their teammates on with chants such as the one for a hitter who draws a walk: "Good eye, good eye, G-O-O-D E-Y-E, good eye."
Between games, opposing players mingle and share picnic lunches with their parents. Souvenirs are for sale, including a video titled "Softball Nation's Fast-Pitch Fever" and a T-shirt that says, "NSA Softball, Down & Dirty - It's not your mama's game."
Lauren's mother, Lorrie Gibson, pitched for three years for the varsity softball team at Chesapeake High School in Pasadena. Her elder daughter, Danielle, 14, pitched until she hurt her arm a couple of years ago and is now a catcher.
A few years ago, Lauren started going to Danielle's Lake Shore Lightning games. By age 4. Lauren was the team's bat girl. By age 7, coached by her mother and her father, Steve, she outgrew T-ball and the clinic where coaches pitch to the girls.
Lauren, like many of the girls was inspired by the U.S. women's team's 1996 Olympic gold medal. "I watched it on TV. It looked really cool to be a pitcher," she says. "I want to pitch in the Olympics."
Her growth was stunted by a reflux condition, which caused digestive acids to irritate her esophagus, making it difficult for her to eat and digest food.
"She was always small. When she was a baby, she stopped eating totally," her mother said.
Having undergone surgery three years ago, Lauren is expected to grow to normal size. For now, she is catching up, but her size hasn't prevented her from making a name for herself in softball.
Because she's so young and small, her parents worry that her reflexes might not be developed enough to protect her from a hard smash up the middle. That's why she wears a mask and a pad on her chest.
Last year, at age 7, she pitched in the fast-pitch World Series against girls at least three years older than she was. In one three-inning stretch, she struck out seven in recording nine consecutive outs.
Cantrell said the tournament director "said he'd never seen anything like that."
Yesterday, an opposing coach who was watching Lauren talked about the paralyzing change-up that has earned her the nickname "Stun Gun." She delivers the pitch after throwing fastballs that her tutor says reach 40 mph.
"When she throws that change-up after you see that heat, you're just not going to touch that pitch," said Glenn Reinhardt, an assistant coach of the Howard County Youth Program Patriots.
The Patriots met the Lightning for the 10-and-under championship yesterday.
Off the field, Lauren is an honor student in the third grade at Jacobsville Elementary.
Off the mound, she is quick to smile, but on the mound, her eyes narrow and the smile disappears. She says she likes pitching in tournaments because "it brings on pressure."
In one game Saturday, she struck out 11 in five innings. In yesterday's title game, she struck out six and walked none in four innings. Then Lauren, a switch-hitter, delivered the final blow in Lake Shore's win. With an infield single, she drove in the run that made the score 13-3 and prompted the umpire to invoke the "slaughter rule" and award the win to Lake Shore.
Afterward, the teams accepted their trophies and Dowell said the Most Valuable Player award would, for the first time, be shared. One winner was JordynWilliams, the Lightning catcher who smashed two home runs in the championship game.
The other was Lauren Gibson.
Lake Shore manager Terry Colebrook said, "She's the mightiest of the mighty mites."