Standing on the pitcher’s mound, Kelly Barnhill made assumptions about Kasey Cooper and nitpicked everything about her as she waited at the plate.
Barnhill didn’t necessarily hate the former Auburn infielder, but it didn’t take much for the Florida ace to dislike Cooper. After all, Cooper was the 2016 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and anything but an easy out for Barnhill.
“I was like, ‘Gosh, Auburn, horrible. I don’t like this girl.’ It’s also because she’s really good,” Barnhill said, laughing. “You don’t like the girls that are really good and get hits off of you.”
As soon as she started playing alongside Cooper with the USA Softball Women’s National Team, Barnhill realized her initial impressions of her former college rival were all wrong. They’ve since become good friends who have roomed together over the past two summers.
Eight current college softball players compete for Team USA (the remainder of the team is made up of former student-athletes), so about a week after the Women’s College World Series ended in June, they reported to a training camp with the national team in Houston.
The conference foes during the spring became teammates in the summer. And while they shared a dugout and a common goal of wanting to win for Team USA, they couldn’t help but tease each other about what happened when they faced off during the college season.
“It was totally kicking my butt to have (UCLA’s Rachel Garcia) there and just (be) like, ‘We lost to you, but you’re here with us now,’” said Arizona catcher Dejah Mulipola, who was on Team USA’s Japan All-Star Series roster this summer.
“So it’s just kind of joking around like, ‘Ah, you got me on the college field, but here we are on the same USA team together.’”
If not for Garcia, Mulipola’s sophomore season might have ended differently.
Garcia put together a dominant performance in a two-game sweep of Arizona in an NCAA Super Regional series in late May. She hit a home run, recorded a pair of wins on the mound and didn’t give up a hit to Mulipola to carry UCLA to the College World Series.
There were no hard feelings, though, once they saw each other at the Team USA training camp in Houston. Mulipola joked with Garcia, “Why did you have to get me out like that? Why do you have to throw that pitch that you know gets me out?”
Identified at a young age as standouts, the eight college players have known of each other for years. Some of them have been teammates in travel ball and for Team USA at international tournaments.
“When I look at them on the field, when they’re my (American) teammates, I don’t see them as, ‘Oh, you’re my rival,’” said UCLA utility player Bubba Nickles, who competes for Team USA. “I just kind of look at them for who they are because we’re all just out there enjoying the game together.”
However, playful rivalries exist between the college players.
(L): Kasey Cooper bats at the WBSC Women's Softball World Championship on Aug. 3, 2018 in Chiba, Japan. (R): Kasey Cooper bats during a game at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.
Facing each other every year in the SEC, the Pac-12 or the Women’s College World Series has provided them with extra fodder for talking trash when they get together with the national team.
Mulipola was in the midst of a hitting slump when she smacked a line drive that ricocheted off UCLA pitcher Selina Ta’amilo’s left hand during a game on April 13. At the time, Mulipola didn’t realize her hard hit broke Ta’amilo’s non-pitching hand.
Several weeks later, Mulipola reported for Team USA and ran into Nickles. After telling Mulipola the extent of Ta’amilo’s injury, Nickles jokingly asked Mulipola why she intentionally injured Nickles’ college teammate.
“Dejah is like the sweetest girl ever, like she would not even hurt a fly,” Nickles said, laughing. “She’s not someone to hit someone and break their hand and be pumped up about it, so it was funny playing with her.”
That sort of playful teasing often extends beyond just those players from the same conference.
Barnhill, Florida teammate Amanda Lorenz and Ole Miss outfielder Kylan Becker represent the SEC. The rest of the college players with Team USA are from the Pac-12 — Garcia, Mulipola, Nickles, Washington infielder Sis Bates and Oregon pitcher Megan Kleist.
The SEC players regularly go back and forth with the Pac-12 players, debating which league is better at softball.
In August, after Kelsey Stewart’s walkoff single in the 10th inning lifted Team USA to a 7-6 win over Japan and its second consecutive world championship, the American players from the Pac-12 celebrated by taking a photograph together.
Barnhill and her teammates from SEC schools decided to follow suit and took their own picture as a group.
While the college players don’t get the opportunity to talk once they return to their respective schools, they keep in touch through social media. They also make it a point to meet up after their college games against each other — assuming no one is too heated after a loss.
Barnhill pitched against Garcia in the Women’s College World Series, with UCLA edging Florida 6-5 on June 1. They then got to see each other pitch and take batting practice as teammates on the U.S. world championship team this summer.
Could that give either of them an advantage if they get another opportunity this upcoming season to face each other for a national championship?
“Even if I did know more about her swing, she knows more about my pitching now,” Barnhill said. “So it goes both ways. I don’t really think one way or the other it really affects it.”