3 USA players to know at Women's World Cup

Collins, Lansdell, Underwood bring experience and youth

August 24th, 2018
Laura Collins, Ashton Lansdell and Malaika Underwood

VIERA, Fla. -- Speed, power, depth, youth, experience and home-field advantage.

Those are the ingredients Team USA hopes will be the magic formula to win this year's WBSC Women's Baseball World Cup. Team USA is ranked third in the tournament, behind five-time defending champion Team Japan and Team Canada.

• Live stream the Women's World Cup

Three key Team USA players are veterans Laura Collins and Malaika Underwood, and the youngest team member, 17-year-old Ashton Lansdell. At 44, Collins is Team USA's oldest player. (The oldest player in the WBSC tournament is 48-year-old Maria Zayas Rodriguez, a right-handed pitcher for Team Puerto Rico.)

Team USA, Japan remain undefeated in tournament

In 2004, at the inaugural World Cup, Collins led the team with a 1.00 ERA while tossing two complete games and allowing just two earned runs in 14 innings.

After winning her gold medal, Collins stepped aside to raise a family and earn a living working for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement near Hollywood, Fla. However, after the death of her husband, Collins left her job and decided to return to her native Norman, Okla., home to create Champions University, a sports and fitness instruction school for children.

"I just wanted to get back to my passion and work with kids," she said.

Collins began her baseball career at a very young age. She once played college softball for legendary University of Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso, but baseball was her true love.

"I had two brothers growing up, and I played baseball with them all the time," she said. "My dream was to be the first woman to be a Major League baseball pitcher."

Collins admits that when she started playing baseball it was an era where girls weren't allowed to play with the boys. Times have changed, she said.

"Now these girls are playing baseball at 4 years old," she said. "The skill level is tremendous. It's amazing to see how much it has evolved, especially since being away from it for so long."

A 1992 film, "A League of Their Own," may have triggered the growth of women's baseball. The sports comedy-drama film tells a fictionalized account of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League during the 1940s. Many men who were Major League baseball players had to leave their teams and fight in World War II, creating an entertainment void in several cities across the U.S.

Directed by Penny Marshall, the film stars Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, Madonna and Lori Petty. One of the most famous lines in the movie is by manager Jimmy Dugan, played by Hanks, when he says: "There's no crying in baseball."

"The movie really brought to light the fact that women can play and compete in baseball," Collins said.

Collins also praised legendary comedian Bob Hope for creating the Colorado Silver Bullets, an all-female professional baseball team that played in the U.S. from 1994-97, and was managed by former Atlanta Braves and Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro.

"People are starting to find out that women can play baseball and are willing to make sacrifices to play," she said. "Honestly, any publicity that shines the light on a sport that women want to play, and we weren't getting that chance, I'm all for it. Now they're signing Minor League contracts. They're breaking barriers."

The only obstacle for Team USA is that it is not a professional squad, like Team Japan.

One of the Team USA players is a kindergarten teacher, another wants to be a lawyer, another co-owns an Olympic training gym and yet another, the 17-year-old Lansdell, is still in high school in Marietta, Ga., where she pitches on the boys' varsity baseball team.

"[Team Japan and other countries in the tournament] have professional organizations. We don't," Collins said. "We have to train on our own. But I think we have a very good team this year. We have a very good chance to medal, and it really helps to be at home as the host country. It's an advantage to have the home crowd cheering you on."

Despite her age, Collins believes it gives her an advantage over some of the other women.

"A lot of the girls don't know what they're playing for," she said. "The nerves don't get to me so much. I think I can contribute and help this team win."

Youngest athlete

Lansdell began playing baseball when she was 4 years old. She credits her dad, who was a catcher in college, with teaching her the finer points of the game. She thinks it's "really cool" to be playing in this year's WBSC tournament.

"I am excited about the opportunity to play in the World Cup," she said. "But it has been a little nerve-racking. I'm not used to seeing all the cameras and media coverage, but I'm getting used to it."

Lansdell also is honored to be a part of history every time she slips on the USA jersey.

"I think, for us, home-field advantage is a big one because it's in our country," Lansdell said. "I won't be as nervous. It gives us more motivation to win more because it's on our soil."

The biggest difference between high school baseball and World Cup competition is the style of pitching, Lansdell said.

"In high school, I'm used to seeing pitches at 85 miles per hour," she said. "Here at the World Cup, I have to get used to the different styles of pitching. My goal is to stay focus and concentrate on what I have to do."

While competing for Team USA, Lansdell's main position will be in the middle infield, but she could see time on the mound and the outfield. She also credits many of the team's veterans with helping her adjust.

"It's great playing with a lot of these veterans," she said. "I look up to them because I see how they represent themselves. They've been a big help to me."

Before the Team USA tryouts in Cary, N.C., Lansdell attended the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series, where she improved her fielding and her pitching motion. She worked on whipping through her pitching motion, which has increased her velocity from the high 70s to the low 80s.

Lansdell also has been getting a lot of support from family, friends and Wheeler High School classmates back in Georgia.

"[The school] put up a bulletin board with my picture on it to show how I am doing. I think it's really cool," she said.

This is the first year the U.S. is hosting the WBSC tournament. Lansdell hopes she and her teammates get the chance to carry the World Cup trophy.

"[The trophy] is super shiny," Lansdell said. "It was cool because, one day, this could be ours, and I could be a part of this team and win the World Cup. It's like winning a gold medal. I thought it was cool to potentially see that could be ours, and I can be part of this."

Busy schedule

Another key Team USA player is Underwood, a 2003 graduate from the University of North Carolina and a four-year standout on the Tar Heel women's volleyball team.

A native of San Diego, Underwood is one of 14 USA Baseball Women's National Team alumni returning to the roster and one of 11 members of the squad that won gold at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games. Underwood also was a member of the Women's National Team that won a world championship in '06.

With the 2018 Women's National Team, Underwood has broken her own record for most appearances on USA Baseball national teams as this marks her ninth time wearing the red, white and blue. She has appeared on every Women's National Team since '06. Chicago Cubs outfielder Albert Almora Jr. (7) and Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch (6) hold the next closest marks.

During Underwood's time at Carolina, the outside hitter was named the MVP of the ACC Tournament her junior year and the Verizon Academic All-District 3 University Division Volleyball Team her senior season. She finished her career as a team captain and a recipient of an NCAA Postgraduate Scholarship and an NCAA Enhancement Scholarship.

Despite her distinguished volleyball career, Underwood's baseball career is even more accomplished. She competed for La Jolla High School during her prep career and was a Union Tribune All-Academic selection as a pitcher and second baseman.

Today, Underwood works for The Brandr Group, a boutique brand agency in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. Underwood is married and just had a baby six months ago.

"I have a lot going on in my life right now with work and family," she said. "But I have the freedom to play baseball, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to play in this year's World Cup."

Although she played second base during the 2006-12 seasons, Underwood is playing first base for this year's squad. When asked who's her favorite Major League baseball player, her answer was quick -- of the Los Angeles Angels.

"He's a great hitter and great defensive first baseman," she said. "I really like the way he plays."

Despite her busy schedule and family responsibilities, Underwood says she's going to play as long as she can but sees there is a lot of good, young talent coming up through the ranks that will challenge her.

"I know I am one of the veterans and it's been great, but I'm excited that there is even more talent out there for the future," she said.

Underwood hopes her experience, especially having played in many key competitive situations in college volleyball and World Cup, will rub off on the team's younger players.

"I want to show them to be successful at this level you have to work hard and have commitment to be the best you can," she said.

Anyone interested in future girls' or women's baseball programming and events can send an e-mail to [email protected] to get more information about opportunities through MLB & USA Baseball.