Canuck women headed west to Worlds
* Canada, led by Ashley Stephenson, shown here scoring at the the 2008 World Cup in Japan, is one of eight teams competing in the Women’s World Cup in Edmonton. The field also inclues Japan, USA, Cuba, Chinese Taipei, Venezuela, Australia and The Netherlands./Photo: Baseball Canada ….
By Alexis Brudnicki
“So, you mean softball, right?”
“Oh, it’s fast-pitch then. The pitcher throws the ball underhanded?”
Still no. Try again.
Many who are headed to the upcoming Women’s Baseball World Cup in Edmonton, have been asked these and similar questions time and time again.
But this is a baseball championship. They play with real baseballs and everything. They’re sewn together with 108 stitches, and they’re regulation size, shape and form. The game is the same.
“Every day I get those questions and it’s probably the most annoying question in the world,” Canadian team member Autumn Mills said. “I get text messages on a regular basis from my friends saying, ‘I’m talking to this guy and he’s telling me that there isn’t a women’s baseball team …’
“The problem is that nobody knows, A, because we’re not in the Olympics and B, because there’s not a lot of opportunity until you get to the national level. We don’t have a place for girls to grow up and play baseball.”
Though Mills wishes that the questions would stop and that people would have a better understanding of the depth of the women’s game, she doesn’t mind taking the time to teach others every once in a while.
Ashley Stephenson, the oldest member of Team Canada at 29 and a school teacher, has heard the same questions for the majority of her life. But she appreciates getting those questions because it means that people are interested in learning more.
“Most people ask, but that’s because they don’t know,” Stephenson said. “I think it’s kind of funny, but I try and educate them as much as I can so that people know about it. Hopefully the more world championships we’re in [will help]. We’re really hoping to get into the Pan Am [Games] in 2015; that would be fantastic.
“So the more people that know about it, the better it is. So I actually like when they ask because then they’re making sure and not just assuming that I play softball.”
Both women are heading to Alberta for the Women’s Senior National Tournament in Spruce Grove before the World Cup begins on Aug. 10. The tournament consists of eight national teams, including reigning two-time champion Japan, twice gold-medal winner USA, Cuba, Chinese Taipei, Venezuela, Australia, The Netherlands and host Canada.
This will be Stephenson’s fifth World Cup and Mills’ fourth – Mills was too young for the inaugural women’s tournament. The two women grew up playing baseball, both in boys’ leagues until the national team formed.
“I started playing when I was four, with the boys, in London, Ontario, where I’m from,” Mills said. “I played with the boys until I was 14 in London leagues and in St. Thomas. Then I heard about a girls’ program.
“So I came to Toronto on the weekends and played bantam Team Ontario, which is like a girls-only league. We would basically just practice for eight hours a weekend and that was the only time we could get together because we were from all over Ontario.
“Team Canada women’s baseball, well the World Cup was founded in 2004 and that’s when it really developed. I was 15, so I didn’t make it in 2004. I made it in 2005 as the youngest player when I was 16. I’ve been on Team Canada since then, so seven or eight years now.”
Stephenson started with Team Canada in 2004, and has been a part of the team since the beginning. Though everyone started in the same boat at the time, the Mississauga native is now a veteran presence and a vocal leader on the team.
With everyone on an even playing field, the third baseman didn’t have an influence on her team to look up to, the role that she now plays for the national squad. She knows how the young players feel, however, because of what she went through while playing hockey.
“I was actually in the national team program for hockey for a few years and going to those camps was really intimidating as a young athlete,” the high school teacher said. “One of the girls, Cheryl Pounder, I played with her and she’s been to a number of Olympics; her and Sammi Jo Small were both fantastic to me at camps.
“They were just always encouraging me, telling me I was doing a good job; not to get discouraged. It’s just so competitive that it’s so stressful. So they were always awesome and helpful. I think that’s why now when I see the young kids come up and they’re so nervous and they just want to do well, I try to make it fun on the field.
“Or if someone makes a mistake, on the bench going over and saying something like, ‘No worries,’ or, ‘Next time,’ something so they know that they’re not hung out to dry on their own. In baseball, we’re all in it together.”
No one on the women’s national team will be on their own in August, since Canada is the host country for the second time in the history of the tournament, also held in Edmonton in 2004. Mills believes that having the support of the home crowd could be a game changer.
“I don’t think anything is going to come easy but hopefully we’ll have the advantage of fans and support,” the 24-year-old right-hander said. “[Team] Venezuela did so well in Venezuela.
“They’re a good team but they did so well because they had 10,000 people in the stands cheering, ‘Venezuela!’ for three hours. And these were loud, intimidating, scary people screaming for them. So obviously they had adrenaline pumping a million miles a minute.
“Hopefully we get the fan support and that helps us out.”
The advantage of playing on home soil can also add some extra pressure to the competition, but Stephenson believes that the crowd will only help to fuel the national team’s fire.
“Everybody’s excited and everybody has family and friends coming,” Stephenson said. “With that, there’s some responsibility and some nervous energy but I think you always know that you’ve got someone behind you. It’s like having that 10th player on the field.”