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Laura Norwood has answered to "Coach" for the last 24 years, only because it would look strange for her players to bow in her direction.

But, truth be told, they should.

It could be argued that Norwood, a Modesto resident, has done more for girls softball than any other person in the Central Valley, opening doors to the game that were closed during her school years.

The Greater San Joaquin County Softball Hall of Fame recognized Norwood's contributions recently by inducting her as a member. Her induction class also included two all-time great men's fastpitch players, pitcher Steve Padilla and catcher Dave Chaves. Area softball team Mid Valley Plastering also was honored after winning the Men's D Slowpitch Western National Championships.

Norwood, 60, was part of the first graduating class of Davis High in 1964, a pre-Title IX era of bad fields and hand-me-down equipment.

"My parents made me take ballet, but I wanted to play basketball," said Norwood, who is the housing development and construction supervisor for the Stanislaus County Housing Authority. "I did play a little slowpitch because they didn't have any fastpitch for women back then."

Norwood's outlook on the accepted have-not status of women's softball changed in 1982, when her daughter Sara — then 6 — began playing in the softball division of Ceres Youth Baseball.

"She was forced to play recreation ball in Ceres on open fields with no bathrooms or snack bars," Norwood said. "The boys had all of them, but they weren't letting girls on those fields. The whole organization was a good-old-boys club."

That changed when Norwood worked her way onto the board of directors. Within a year, the girls teams were playing on equal fields.

But Norwood didn't stop there. The girls' game, as played in Ceres, was tee ball. She took a tee-ball team to a girls 10-under fastpitch tournament. To the shock of many, the team placed second.

"We didn't take second because we could hit," she explained. "In fact, the kids all complained about the pitches coming in so fast. But we could field better than any of the other teams. Seeing that, I went back to the board and they added girls fastpitch the next year."

Norwood had no idea she was giving birth to a local dynasty. She branched out into coaching travel ball with the NorCal Tremors and then the Lodi-based Grapettes, whose 12-under team she still coaches.

"I stay with the 12s," Norwood said. "They still believe everything you tell them. They're not very good at that age when they come to you, and you can take them and make them good. That's when you know you did your job."

In 1993, Sara Norwood — now her mother's top assistant coach — became the first of five Ceres High pitchers to be named The Modesto Bee's softball player of the year, a streak that began with her mother's willingness to fight athletic stereotypes.

"I still have a great time with it," Laura Norwood said. "It's great to be honored for something you enjoy doing so much.

"But these girls now are so lucky to have this opportunity to play. They have no idea how lucky they are."

If you happen past a softball field and see a group of 50-somethings going full bore around the bases, chances are Chaves, 55, will be one of them.

A fastpitch catcher for more than 30 years, Chaves — a Turlock dairyman — has played on 11 national championship teams and earned seven All-America honors.

He claims this might be his final summer playing competitive softball, but you also might get the idea he's been saying that for several years.

"I have about three guys who came into this thing with me many years ago, and we're going out together," Chaves said. "This could be the year. It all depends on how it goes."

A 1969 Turlock High graduate, Chaves played two seasons of baseball at Cal State Stanislaus, then found his way onto the softball field in 1973 playing for El Katrina Dairy at Mountain View Park between Modesto and Crows Landing.

Like most fastpitch softball beginners, he was asked one day to warm up a pitcher. Unlike most beginners, he discovered he was good at it, and never left.

Chaves is starting his second decade as the catcher for the 45-over NorCal Merchants, where his teammates have become brothers.

"It's a second family to me," Chaves said. "We're like the Yankees. We've won so much that people want to jump on our team."

But first, Chaves and his peers would have to jump off. Don't count on that happening soon. Chaves' father, Louie, passed away three years ago at 78 while running to take his position during a game in Modesto.

"What a way to go," Dave Chaves said. "Going that way would not bother me a bit. But I don't know if I'm going to make it that long because of my knees.

"Making the Hall of Fame was a great honor. It's like the icing on the cake with the candles still glowing. I'm not ready to blow out those candles because I'm not quite done."

By softball standards, Padilla's career was short — a mere 17 years from first to last pitch. But in his prime, the Manteca resident's drop ball-changeup combination made him nearly unhittable.

"My brothers played, and I used to hang around the park like everyone else," said Padilla, a 1971 Los Banos High graduate. "I just started messing around with pitching. Everybody tries it and almost everyone gives it up."

His first games on the mound came in 1978 with the Modesto Aztecs, an un-uniformed, unsponsored, low-level team playing at Beard Brook Park. Teams began noticing Padilla's skills.

"I just knew I liked pitching, and I had a natural drop to my pitches," he said. "I stuck with it and kept working on it. Got picked up by (A Division) Joaquin Construction in 1980 and was on my way."

That team, later sponsored by the Tee-House, won the A Division national championship in 1982. Two years later, the Merced-based California Kings claimed an Open Division national championship.

The Kings lost their first game in the tournament, then won 10 in a row through the losers' bracket. Padilla went 5-0 on the mound and was named the tournament's most valuable player.

He went on to claim six All-America honors before giving up playing in 1995. But his softball career was far from over.

That same year, Padilla was contacted by the Amateur Softball Association about helping as a coach for the Puerto Rican national women's softball team. From that, he earned a trip to the Atlanta Olympics.

The following year, he was signed as a coach for the U.S. men's national team, a position he still holds.

"When the Hall of Fame people called to tell me I was being inducted, it really caught me off guard," Padilla said. "I appreciated that they remembered me."

To comment, click on the link with this story at Bee staff writer Brian VanderBeek can be reached at 578-2300 or