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If everything's big in Texas, then Cat Osterman's the exception to the rule. She's bigger than big, in every way imaginable.

Since asking for (and receiving) pitching lessons for her 11th birthday, Osterman has developed a talent that makes her one of the nation's most singularly dominating female college athletes.

She went from being a lanky kid pitching to her dad on a concrete driveway in a Houston suburb to a high school and club softball phenom, a three-time All-American and two-time national player of the year for the Texas Longhorns and a 2004 Olympic gold medalist.

"She's a rock star," says Texas coach Connie Clark, a former All-America pitcher at Cal State-Fullerton. "When you're with her every day, you forget about her numbers and how staggering they are. When you look at her stats, you shake your head. Years from now people will remember her name."

Osterman, a left-hander, stands 6-2 and weighs 172, with hands so large she can grip a softball entirely with her fingers rather than having to cradle it in her palm. That allows her to put above-average spin on the ball and confound batters as arguably no one has, becoming the only NCAA pitcher to register 2,000-plus strikeouts. (She has 2,146, 373 more than No.2 Courtney Blades, who pitched for Nicholls State and Southern Mississippi from 1997-2000.) Osterman has command of six pitches but says she rarely throws her fastball.

"I don't think there's anyone who spins the ball as well as, or makes it move more than, Cat does," says Arizona's Mike Candrea, the coach of the 2004 U.S. Olympic softball team and the national team.

What remains elusive, however, is an NCAA championship, a dream that is in Osterman's sights one last time.

Friday, the No. 3-ranked Longhorns (49-7), who have finished third in the Women's College World Series twice in the last three years, host Texas-San Antonio (37-12) in an NCAA regional that includes Utah (38-19) and Indiana (29-23-1). The double-elimination event is the first phase of the 64-team NCAA tournament.

A title would be a fitting end to a college career that left Osterman, a four-time Big 12 pitcher of the year, with many highlights and numerous awards. "I came to Texas because I wanted to raise the bar and to put Lady Longhorns softball consistently on the map," she says. She has done that.

Osterman (32-2) is ranked first in the nation in strikeouts per seven innings at 15.4 -- almost 11/2 strikeouts more than the next best and ahead of her NCAA record of 15.2 set last season. Osterman owns four of the top five seasons for the NCAA's best strikeout ratio.

She is first in the nation in earned-run average (0.42), the third time she has led in that category, and is second nationally in wins (32). Opponents are batting .082 against her this season.

Popularity-wise, she is college softball's version of Mick Jagger, Madonna and the Beatles rolled into one. The Longhorns broke attendance records at five away games this season (Texas State, Iowa State, Texas Tech, Kansas and Baylor) and set their own single-game mark when a standing-room-only crowd of 1,570 turned out for Osterman's final regular-season home game April 30.

She receives thousands of hits each week on Cat's Korner, her blog on the University of Texas website, with hundreds of questions to answer. She has had to put a privacy screen on her Facebook.com page, after turning on her computer and discovering 1,200 people had signed onto her "friends" list practically overnight.

She can only imagine how it would be if the Longhorns win the NCAA championship. Osterman says she'll be disappointed if it doesn't happen but adds she won't be disheartened because she has reaped rewards that are so much more meaningful.

"People say, 'In order to solidify your success, you have to win a national championship,'" she says. "Well, I only have four years. I don't have a lifetime. It's a team sport. I don't hit. How many great NFL quarterbacks never won the Super Bowl? Or the national championship? ...

"I've done so much for the program and the institution. You can't take that away. We've won Big 12 regular-season titles and Big 12 championships. We're getting top recruits. It's just fun to look back and say, 'I was a big part of that.'"

Vacations revolve around softball

The oldest of Gary and Laura's three children, Osterman is named Catherine Leigh. She wasn't born to pitch but to play basketball -- her father had played in some of the higher level basketball leagues in Houston until he was 30, and several of her aunts and uncles had played college basketball.

But in the fifth grade, her Bear Creek Little League coach asked for volunteers to pitch, and Osterman raised her hand.

"I struck out one batter," she says. "I loved it so much I asked for pitching lessons for my 11th birthday. ... After my second pitching lesson, I announced, 'I've found my special gift!'"

In eighth grade, she found her special nickname -- or rather, it found her. There were too many Kathys, Katys and Katherines on her middle school volleyball team, so the coach shortened her name to Cat.

"As long as I wasn't called Cathy," says Osterman, whose family and elementary school friends still call her Catherine.

Her brothers Craig, 19, and Chris, 11, also are athletes. Craig just finished his freshman year at Texas Tech and plans to transfer to a Division II school to compete in swimming. Chris, Osterman says, "plays a new sport every week."

Both are huge supporters of their big sister. Chris gave up baseball this spring to travel to games with his parents and watch her pitch in her final season.

Family vacations always were geared around softball.

"One year, we drove to Colorado for a tournament and stopped at Carlsbad Caverns for three days," Osterman's mother says. "She can't go more than a couple of days without pitching or she loses her timing. So we drove around and found a backstop. She and Gary played catch. I took the boys to a movie."

For Christmas one year, her parents presented Osterman with a rug, which now sits in her apartment in Austin, with the words "ONE SPOILED CAT LIVES HERE."

"I always get kidded for being spoiled, because I get everything I want," she says. "The family's life revolved around my softball."

Her brothers never complained. A few weeks ago, while in Austin for Senior Weekend, Osterman's parents mentioned that next year, during spring break, they would have their first non-softball family vacation.

Says her mom: "We all looked at each other and said, 'What are we going to do?'"

Last outing one to forget

There is one final trip the family won't mind taking, back to the College World Series, in Oklahoma City from June 1-7.

Osterman is coming off a 5-0 loss in the Big 12 tournament to No. 4 seed Texas A&M on May 11. She had thrown a shutout April 30 against Oklahoma State, then did not make a start until facing A&M.

It was her longest layoff between starts this season and also came after finals week. Osterman gave up all the runs on four hits (including a homer and a grand slam) and 12 strikeouts in 51/3 innings.

"We stuck to our game plan facing Osterman. We made her work and made her throw a lot of pitches, allowing us to get our timing down," A&M coach Jo Evans said after the game.

The five runs were the most Osterman gave up this year (six is her career high) and raised her ERA from 0.28 to a season-high 0.42.

"These outings for her are very rare," Texas' Clark said after the game. "I just had to remind her that she -- and our team -- have done a lot of good things and that there is life after today. We have another big opportunity coming up" in the NCAA tournament.

Catching the fever

After redshirting the 2003-04 school year to play with the Olympic team, Osterman says she will graduate in May 2007 with a degree in psychology, with plans to get a master's in sports psychology at Cal State-Fullerton. She also would like to become a coach, maybe even back at Texas.

Those goals probably will be put on hold until after the 2008 Summer Olympics.

USA Softball, the sport's national governing body, realized how special her gift was while Osterman was en route to her first national amateur title. In 2000, her junior year of high school, her Katy (Texas) Cruisers Gold, a top-level, 18-and-under club team, played an exhibition game against the U.S. Olympic team. She pitched five innings, struck out 11 and allowed one hit to the eventual gold medalists.

"I'll never forget her expression after her first strikeout," her dad says. "She jumped right out of the circle."

Says Osterman: "I thought, 'Oh, my God. I struck out an Olympian.'"

In summer 2001, after graduating from Cypress (Texas) Springs High School as the Gatorade National Softball Player of the Year, Osterman was invited to join USA Softball's national team.

As she says, "I haven't looked back since."

A couple of years ago, as she was making headlines striking out batters, her eighth-grade English teacher sent her parents a paper Osterman had written. It forecast the future, detailing strikeouts, boisterous crowds and a play-by-play of pitching her team to victory in the College World Series.

The team? Texas.

"Now it's gotten to the point where, OK, we finished third twice in the College World Series and we're kind of tired of it," Osterman says.

"At the beginning of the year, we got together and set our goals, and I jokingly said, 'I'd rather go two-and-out than finish third again.' Of course, that's a total lie. But you feel like you're cursed.

"There's a sense of urgency. It's senior year, and I want to go out on top. I'm ready to go in there, to make the push even farther and bring home the trophy."

To see more of USAToday.com, or to subscribe, go to http://www.usatoday.com

© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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