With 2019 shaping up to be the team’s busiest and most important summer in years – and capped by the all-important Olympic qualifier in late August – Canadian national women’s fastpitch team brass made an important decision last year: to get even busier.
Last July, longtime Canadian head coach Mark Smith suggested the team would look to join the U.S.-based National Pro Fastpitch circuit in order to give the team a consistent, high-level playing schedule, and last fall, it was announced that the team would in fact join the NPF, and would be based out of the Marion. Ill.
Known in the six-team pro league as the Canadian Wild of Southern Illinois, the national team currently sits in third place with a 16-13 win-loss record. But more importantly, it’s given the team exactly what it was hoping for – a steady string of competitive games in advance of a summer that includes not just this week’s Canada Cup in South Surrey, but also the Pan American Games in Peru from July 26-Aug. 11 and then the main event: the 2019 Americas Qualifier back home on the Semiahmoo Peninsula, where they’ll vie for one of two berths in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.
“It’s been really awesome in terms of our preparation, for (the Canada Cup) and for what’s to come,” Team Canada pitcher Sara Groenewegen, a former White Rock Renegades star, told Peace Arch News Tuesday during a media event at Softball City.
“We’re going to be extremely prepared… Some of the teams we’re facing (in the NPF), they’ve got players who have played on Team USA or for other countries. It’s really good competition, and has done nothing but prepare us well for the future.”
Team Canada, back wearing their familiar red and black uniforms – as opposed to the white and purple threads they adopted as the Wild – opened its Canada Cup schedule Tuesday evening with an 8-0 victory over Great Britain’s U22 team.
Two other national teams – Australia, as the Aussie Peppers of Minnesota and China, as the Daytona Beach, Fla-based Beijing Eagles – are also playing in the NPF this summer, alongside league mainstays like the first-place Chicago Bandits and the USSSA Pride, based out of Florida. The Cleveland Comets round out the league.
“We’re facing the top NCAA graduates from around the country, and these young women are extremely talented. In fact, the top two or three teams in this league could easily (take on) the top two or three countries in the world at a competitive level,” Smith said.
Groenewegen is one of a number of currently Canadian players with prior experience in the NPF, having spent the summer of 2017 with the now defunct Akron Racers. Fellow Renegade alum Danielle Lawrie-Locke also has plenty of NPF history – she played with the USSSA Pride from 2010-2014 – as do a few others, including infielder and Port Coquitlam native Jenn Salling, who played for the Pride and the Pennsylvania Rebellion between 2011 and ‘14.
“It’s been great for our team and for me, it’s been cool to be back in the league with our team,” Salling said.
“It’s awesome to be able to see this type of competition going into the Olympic qualifier. In my experience, we’ve never seen this level of competition before for this long, leading up to an event. I’m super excited to see how it’s going to pay off in the end.”
In Marion, the Wild are owned, essentially, by the same group that owns and operates the independent Frontier Baseball League Southern Illinois Miners. The two organizations share a ball field – Rent One Park – while the softball team lives and trains at Southern Illinois University in nearby Carbondale, Ill.
“We have our own little community there,” Salling said.
“And the Marion people, they’re so supportive. It’s been absolutely incredible. We have a pretty good amount of fans, especially with a lot of young kids around. We have some new Team Canada fans – it’s nice.”
The Wild got off to a hot start in the NPF, winning their first eight games, before coming back down to earth and losing a few as the spring an summer wore on.
Groenewegen wasn’t worried too much about the team’s performance in those losses – they’ll return to the NPF schedule later this month before heading to Peru – and went so far as to suggest the defeats were a positive thing in the long run.
“That’s when you learn the most. You can feel comfortable winning every single game, but are you really learning anything? Just taking something from every game – the games we’ve lost and the ones we’ve won – it’s going to help us.”
At the Canada Cup today (Wednesday), Canada will play a midday game, at 12:30 p.m. against the Calahoo Erins, and at 7 p.m. will face New Zealand. On Thursday, they’ll hit the field at 6 p.m. for a game against Chinese Taipei, and on Friday will play Triple Crown Colorado at 1 p.m.