Team Canada’s Jenn Salling slides into base against Ireland during an early-round game at last summer’s Women’s World Softball Championship. (File photo)

Canada Cup fastpitch event to feature distinct national flavour

Three Canadian teams to play at next month’s women’s fastpitch event in South Surrey.

With less than a month to go before the first pitch is thrown, the Canada Cup appears it is going to live up to its name, as no less than three national women’s fastpitch teams from the host country are set to compete in the tournament’s international division.

The Canadian national program will send its senior team – which has been a fan favourite since the Canada Cup’s inception in the early 1990s, as well during the run of its predecessor, the Canadian Open Championships – as well as a development team, and an under-19 junior team.

Canada won’t be the only country entering multiple entries into the event, according to tournament chairman Greg Timm. In addition to their senior national squads, Chinese-Taipei and Japan – currently the No. 1-ranked team in the world – are also sending development or youth teams to South Surrey when the tournament hits the field July 7-17, as is Puerto Rico.

Timm, the longtime tournament chairperson who was also at the helm of last year’s Surrey-hosted 2016 Women’s World Softball Championships, attributes the renewed interest in the tournament to renewed interest stemming from the success of last year’s world tournament, as well as the fact that women’s softball will be back on the Olympic schedule for the 2020 Games after a 12-year absence.

With the Olympics back on the radar, he explained, countries have started to better fund their women’s fastpitch programs.

“We have lots of international momentum coming out of last year… a tailwind is a good way of putting it,” he said. “We got a lot of good press (about the world championships), and you can really feel the Olympic money already starting to pour back in.

“This is sort of the first time we’ve seen that green grass coming up through the grass – programs now have more money to development the sport again.”

With regard to Canada’s triple-entry into this summer’s tournament, Timm said it “bodes well” for the program as it eyes a medal at the 2020 Olympics, set for Tokyo. The under-19 team will use the Canada Cup as a primer, of sorts, before jetting to Florida for the Junior Women’s World Championship, July 24-30.

“We’re starting to get on the long trajectory already, for qualifying for the 2020 Olympics, and… as I talked about last year, the jump back to the Canada Cup, and re-emphasizing international play, really adds a whole new element,” he explained.

“Canada’s youth team will be here, and it’s been a long time since that’s happened. We’ll have so many elite Canadian athletes on the field, and that will serve (Canada) well on it’s longterm ambitions for Tokyo.”

One country notably absent from this year’s tournament will be Team USA; most of the national team’s players are in the midst of their professional seasons in the U.S.-based National Pro Fastpitch League, and Timm said the U.S. program “is clearing up some of their conflicts” so similar scheduling snafus don’t occur in the future.

“They’ll be back – just not this year,” he said.

The Canada Cup gained more cache on the world stage when, shortly after the conclusion of last year’s world championships, the event was granted a “points allotment” by the World Baseball Softball Federation, meaning that performances at the tournament will go towards overall world rankings under a new points-based system.

“It gives us even more (credibility) and gives teams another reason to come here,” Timm said. “So we’ll start to see the results of that in the next few years.”

The youth tournaments – both under-18 and under-16 levels – are also back again as part of the Canada Cup, and though the new format is intended to highlight the women’s international competition, major youth involvement in Canada Cups and Canadian Opens past has always been a point of pride for Timm, who is also president of the White Rock Renegades youth softball association.

In fact, the chance to inspire young players was one of the reasons for bidding for, and eventually hosting, the world championships in the first place, he said.

“We like to think that we’ve done our job, with regard to the legacy (the world championships) left,” he said. “Why do you run any big event like that? It’s really to leave a legacy, and part of that was getting (Softball City) in good shape, and it’s great now.

“And the other part is to leave a legacy with the young kids who come to watch their national team play. It looks like youth (softball) registration numbers across the Lower Mainland are starting to lean up again. Now, I’m not going to take credit for that, but I think the Canada Cup and world championships do help – it helps make the sport feel important.”

Next month, 72 teams will compete in the U18 and U16 divisions, and four Special Olympic teams will also be part of the action.

Two other young teams – Team BC and Team Quebec U21 squads – are also going to compete in the women’s division, Timm added.

And while this year’s numbers – more than 90 teams – are high, Timm expects even bigger things for 2018.

“We’re running at a high level here, for sure, and I think next year we’ll probably top our all-time numbers, just judging by the momentum we have. Then it just becomes an issue of ‘Where can we fit them all?’”