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Darwitz young gun for USA

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Natalie Darwitz left home in August, she's missing her senior year in high school, and Tuesday night the Minnesota teenager was spotted here in the Bay Area scuffling with some Chinese women.

The sad saga of an American runaway?

Hardly. Darwitz's tale could be one of the big success stories of the 2002 Winter Games.

Darwitz, you see, has her parents' permission — heck, her entire home town of Eagan, Minn., (population 62,000) gives its blessing — to be on the road to Salt Lake with the U.S. women's ice hockey team.

Tuesday night, Darwitz scored a goal just 13 seconds into the game, added another in the third period and assisted five times as Team USA blasted China 16-0 before 5,153 at the Compaq Center.

Team USA improved to 28-0 on its pre-Olympic tour.

The speedy Darwitz, fifth on the team in scoring last year as a high school junior, is sixth in scoring this season. Big things are expected of her and her line mates — Cammi Granato and Krissy Wendell — as the United States aims to defend its Olympic gold medal next month in Utah.

That line accounted for seven of the 16 goals Tuesday. Granato, team captain again as she was in Nagano, scored twice and assisted four times. Wendell, named Tuesday as USA Hockey's 2001 Female Athlete of the Year, had two goals and five assists.

"We've been playing together now for a couple of months, and we're starting to get that chemistry, you know? Knowing where each other is at all times," Darwitz said. "You still gotta look, make sure. But I love it.

"I think I know my role on the team. On that line, I'm the girl that gets them the puck. And if they get the glory, that's fine. My main thing is we want to win every game, especially in Salt Lake."

Wendell, who centers the line, believes it's that unselfish attitude that leads to success.

"At any time, any of the three of us can end up putting it in the net. It doesn't matter which one," said the 20-year-old Wendell. "All of us are pretty offensive-minded. You can't go wrong with any combination on this line."

Darwitz, 18, is keeping up with her studies through correspondence courses as she did last year while sequestered in Lake Placid, N.Y., during Team USA's first-ever, seasonlong residency program. From a distance, Darwitz and her laptop computer still managed to make the honor roll at Eagan High School.

"I'm missing my high school dances and being with my friends, the whole high school experience," admitted Darwitz. whose father, Scott, is the girls' hockey coach at the school. "When I call home and talk to my friends and they talk about how much fun Saturday's party was and stuff like that, it's tough.

"But I can say, 'We beat Canada last night,' and they can't, so I'm very lucky."

The Chinese did not present as much of a challenge to the Americans as the seven-time defending World Champion Canadians might have provided. But this four-game series with China, which moves to Spokane, Wash., on Thursday for Game Two, should allow U.S. Coach Ben Smith to fine-tune his squad without wearing it down before the Olympic tournament begins Feb. 11.

"I think they've made some gains since we saw them last (in September). I think they've had some good training up in Minnesota," Smith said of the Chinese, who will be seeded sixth in the Olympic tournament and will play the United States Feb. 14 in Provo.

The Americans will be seeded second in the Olympics but have played well enough against top-seeded Canada this season — eight wins in eight games — to wrest the "favorite" label away from Team Canada.

But whether she returns home with a gold or silver medal, or even an unexpected bronze, Darwitz will be the BOOC — Big Olympian On Campus — when she returns to Eagan High to finish her education. She is on schedule to graduate with her class this spring.

"Being on the Olympic team just means so much, knowing your work paid off and all the people who helped you, it all paid off," Darwitz said. "I'm doing it for them. I'm doing it for my family."

Darwitz, so the story goes, predicted as a 5-year-old that she would compete in the Olympics. But she downplays that bit of foresight now.

"I was just being a kid," she said. "I didn't even know there was girls' hockey. I was like, 'Mom, I want to be in the Olympics' because I would watch it on TV, and I said 'I'm going to go.' And she was like, 'Well, Natalie, they don't have hockey for women,' and I said, 'Well, I'll play with the boys, then.' "

Darwitz did play on boys' teams as a youngster and didn't stop until she was in the eighth grade. By that time, the growth of women's hockey had paralleled her own development and there was a high school girls' varsity team for her to join. As an eighth-grader on that squad, she led the state in scoring and was named the Minneapolis Star-Tribune Player of the Year.

The Olympic hockey tournament begins Feb. 11 at the E Center and the Peaks Ice Arena. The Americans' first game will be Feb. 12 against Germany at the E Center.

E-mail: zman@desnews.com