World Se­ries shows non-U.S. soft­ball growth

The Amer­i­can team’s short-term goal is to grab a spot in the 2020 Games

The Welland Tribune - - Sports - CLIFF BRUNT

OK­LA­HOMA CITY — USA Soft­ball ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Craig Cress hopes the Women’s Col­lege

World Se­ries of­fered a glimpse of the sport’s fu­ture.

In Game 1 of the cham­pi­onship se­ries last week, Florida State pitcher Meghan King faced Wash­ing­ton’s Gab­bie Plain.

In Game 2, King’s op­po­nent was Wash­ing­ton’s Taran Alvelo. King earned wins in both games and led Florida State to its first na­tional ti­tle.

The im­pact went well be­yond the USA Soft­ball Hall of Fame Com­plex. King and Alvelo are Amer­i­cans with Puerto Ri­can ties who will try to help the U.S. ter­ri­tory qual­ify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Plain is a fresh­man from Aus­tralia who is a part of her coun­try’s na­tional pro­gram.

Two other World Se­ries pitch­ers — Florida’s Aleshia Oca­sio and Ari­zona State’s Giselle “G’’ Juarez — are on Puerto Rico’s squad. Other World Se­ries par­tic­i­pants who play for Puerto Rico are Florida State’s Carsyn Gor­don and Ko­rina Rosario and Florida’s Jamie Hoover.

Wash­ing­ton’s Mor­ganne

Flores is a Puerto Rico team mem­ber who was in­jured and didn’t play for the Huskies this sea­son. Canada and Mex­ico also had na­tional team rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Ok­la­homa

City.

Soft­ball was in the Olympics from 1996 to 2008 but left out in ’12 and ’16 be­fore re­turn­ing for the Tokyo Games. The United States and Ja­pan are the only na­tions to

win gold, with the United States win­ning three times and Ja­pan win­ning once.

Cress said the World Se­ries suc­cess for play­ers with na­tional teams out­side the main­land U.S. is the kind of progress needed to help soft­ball re­main in the Olympics long term and be­come a truly global sport. “I think the main rea­son that got voted out was that it’s looked at as an Amer­i­can sport,” Cress said. “And the IOC (In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee) is not made up of (just) Amer­i­cans, ob­vi­ously.”

The United States will head to Ja­pan for a se­ries June 20-23, and the Paris 2024 Olympics del­e­ga­tion will be rep­re­sented. Cress said his group will join Ja­pan in try­ing to con­vince the Paris of­fi­cials that soft­ball and base­ball

should be on the pro­gram. As the U.S. looks at the big pic­ture, the short-term goal is a spot in the 2020 Games. Oth­ers have scoured the United States for play­ers with her­itage from their coun­tries, with plenty of help from Amer­i­can coaches and of­fi­cials.

Florida State coach Lonni Alameda con­nected with for­mer Florida State player Jes­sica Boul­ware (for­merly van der Lin­den), a pitch­ing coach for Puerto Rico, on King’s be­half. Now, King is a key mem­ber of Puerto Rico’s squad.

Tommy Ve­lazquez, pres­i­dent of the Puerto Rico Soft­ball Fed­er­a­tion, paid at­ten­tion as King dom­i­nated the World Se­ries with four wins, a save and a record for low­est earned run av­er­age.

“She is an amaz­ing pitcher,” Ve­lazquez said. “I think we both

are grow­ing in the process. She is learn­ing about in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and in­ter­na­tional teams, the big sce­nario. Our team re­ceived an out­stand­ing pitcher and our per­for­mance in­creased au­to­mat­i­cally.”

King will help as Puerto Rico pre­pares for the World Cham­pi­onships in Au­gust in Chiba, Ja­pan.

Mex­ico, Canada and Aus­tralia are among the 16 na­tions that will com­pete in the Olympic qual­i­fy­ing tour­na­ment.

King’s suc­cess has another rip­ple ef­fect, too: Play­ers with in­ter­na­tional ex­pe­ri­ence of­ten be­come more dom­i­nant col­lege play­ers.

Wash­ing­ton coach Heather Tarr won the 2009 na­tional ti­tle with cur­rent Cana­dian na­tional team pitcher Danielle Lawrie. This time, she got to the cham­pi­onship se­ries with Plain, who is from Syd­ney, Aus­tralia.

“We live on the Pa­cific Rim, so we would be fool­ish not to ex­plore op­por­tu­ni­ties, whether they are in Aus­tralia or Canada,” said Tarr, an as­sis­tant coach for the U.S.

“Maybe we can’t get the kids from Georgia or Florida to come up to Seat­tle, so re­gion­ally, it does make sense for us to con­nect with our Pa­cific Rim as­so­ciates.”

Alameda said Florida State’s Sa­vanna Copeland, who is from Fish­ers, In­di­ana, will play for Canada this sum­mer. She’ll join a ros­ter that is mostly Cana­dian born but has sev­eral play­ers who com­peted for ma­jor U.S. col­leges.

Mex­ico’s pro­gram has U.S. play­ers with Mex­i­can her­itage — Ok­la­homa’s Eliyah Flores is part of its pro­gram. Team USA’s most re­cent loss was to Mex­ico, for­mer Ari­zona State pitcher Dal­las Es­cobedo in the Pan-Amer­i­can Cham­pi­onship last year.

The United States went through the losers’ bracket to win the tour­na­ment, but Mex­ico left an im­pres­sion.

“They’ve done a nice job go­ing out and re­cruit­ing for­mer col­le­giate play­ers here,” Cress said.

Ve­lazquez said Puerto Rico’s team will likely be 90 per cent Amer­i­cans, and the Philip­pines also has sev­eral U.S. play­ers.

But Tarr said stop­ping at na­tions re­ly­ing heav­ily on U.S. play­ers with for­eign her­itage isn’t enough.

“I per­son­ally, be­ing in­volved with in­ter­na­tional soft­ball, too, care a lot about the or­ganic growth of the sport in these coun­tries,” she said.

“It’s fine for peo­ple to go in there and help them build their na­tion’s teams, but it’s more im­por­tant that they are truly there, be­cause other­wise, soft­ball might not con­tinue to be in the Olympics.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Florida State pitcher Meghan King lets one fly in the first game of the best-of-three cham­pi­onship se­ries at the NCAA Women’s Col­lege World Se­ries in Ok­la­homa City on June 4. King is an Amer­i­can with Puerto Ri­can ties who will help the un­in­cor­po­rated U.S. ter­ri­tory qual­ify for the 2020 Olympics.

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