A few hours before his team took to the field for its first game of the Canada Cup Tuesday evening, Canadian national team head coach Mark Smith made two things clear:
With the team a year out from the next world championships – and three years away from the Olympics – seeing incremental improvement from his young squad is just as important as wins and losses this summer.
And secondly, their opponent for that evening’s game from Philippines, was far better than their No. 17 world ranking would suggest.
“They’re a much-improved team. They performed well last week in Oklahoma City (at the World Cup of Softball). They might not have had the win-loss results, but… they’ve got some very good players,” Smith told Peace Arch News.
“At this level of play, with the teams that are here, on any given night if you don’t show up ready to play, you can be embarassed.”
Somebody check the dugout for a crystal ball, because by night’s end, both Smith’s remarks rang true, as the underdog Philippines defeated the crowd favourite Canadians 6-2 at Softball City.
By Wednesday morning, however, Canada had improved its win-loss record to 1-1 without even taking the field. The Canadians were scheduled to play Pakistan, but for the second year in a row, the team failed to make the trip to Canada due to visa-processing and security-clearance issues, according to tournament chairperson Greg Timm.
Canada played its third game of the tournament Wednesday night against Chinese-Taipei, with the game starting shortly after the tournament’s ‘parade of athletes’ event at Softball City.
Canada’s senior women’s team – one of three team to wear the Maple Leaf at this week’s tournament, along with the Canada Elite development team, and the national junior squad – is coming off a bronze-medal win at the World Cup last week in Oklahoma City, and despite Tuesday’s stumble, are among the medal contenders here, along with other top-ranked countries like Australia and Japan.
And while Smith expects his team to be “highly competitive” this week, he and the rest of the Softball Canada staff are taking a longer-term view now that the Olympics – 2020 in Tokyo – are back on the competitive menu.
While this year’s team still has plenty of familiar names from last year’s world-championship group – including South Surrey’s Sara Groenewegen and longtime infielder Jenn Salling, among others – there is also an influx of young talent, including Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary grad Holly Speers, Delta’s Kelsey Jenkins and former White Rock Renegade Jocelyn Cater, a sophomore pitcher for Syracuse University in the NCAA.
By 2020, it’s also likely that some players from the Elite or junior squads will have made the jump to the top team, as well.
“This is a tinkering year, a year of adjustment. It’s about finding out where we are and who we have to work with. There’s always going to be older players who move on and retire, so you’re prepared for that reality. You’ve always got to have younger players who can step in,” Smith said.
“And there’s no question that the more experience we can give them, and the more exposure they can get at this level, the greater likelihood that they’ll become more comfortable and will develop at a faster rate.
“There’s always the potential that you can expose people too soon to that level, and that can be demoralizing from a confidence perspective. But so far, the young players we’ve brought along have demonstrated that they’re more than capable of competing at this level, which is great for them and good for us, too.”
Smith isn’t the only member of the team who sees potential in the newcomers. In an interview with PAN last month, Salling, a longtime national team member who played for Canada the last time softball was in the Olympics, in 2008, was quick to rattle off the names of a handful of rookies who had impressed her so far this summer.
“The sky’s the limit for us,” she said.
With less than 10 games under their collective belt this summer, Smith admits that his current group is a work-in-progress, but was enthused with the work ethic of his players, veterans and rookies alike.
“There’s moments of brilliance, but there’s there’s moments where it’s very clear that it’s early in the year and we don’t have many games under our belt,” he said.
“We just have to continue to get better at everything we do. We’re taking stock of where we are, and then we’ll move forward.”
The Canada Cup continues throughout the week, with the women’s international division championship game scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday at Softball City.