Women's nine set for Pan Am debut

* Countries have been battling for the women's World Cup since 2004, but this summer the sport makes its Pan/Parapan Am Games debut in Ajax. Manager Andre Lachance's team is fresh from competing at the Worlds in Miyazaki, Japan. Photos: Alexis Brudnicki. ....

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By Alexis BrudnickiCanadian Baseball Network Women’s baseball isn’t a new concept.

It is, however, a brand new addition to a multi-sport event, taking its place in the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games in July after previously competing in six Women’s Baseball World Cup competitions.

Those who aren’t well acquainted with the history of the women’s program, which has been around since 2004, or the success of Team Canada – having medalled in four of the six World Cups, capturing silver in its best year in 2008 – can be forgiven.

“I’m not really that familiar with it,” saidErnie Whitt, manager of the men’s national team, during a conference call about the upcoming Games. “But I’m all for … the ladies playing baseball.”

For those who aren’t already, now is a great time to become familiar. The women’s national team is returning home to Ajax, Ont., to compete on the biggest stage it’s ever seen. With a bronze medal in each of the World Cup tournaments the country has hosted – both in Edmonton, Alta. – they know what a difference home-field advantage can make.

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“Competing on home soil is always fun,” veteran third baseman Ashley Stephenson said. “We’ve had our [World Cup] championship obviously in Edmonton twice now, and won the bronze medal [both times].

“But the biggest thing I’m excited for is playing in a multi-sport, huge international event. We’ve competed in World Cups but not in multi-sport [games] so opening ceremonies, closing ceremonies, seeing all the other teams and other athletes, that’s probably going to be the coolest thing.”

So what else should baseball fans know about the women’s game? It might start to sound familiar, but the bases are 90 feet apart, the mound is 60 feet and six inches from the plate, the balls have 108 stitches, and there are nine men on the field.

Well, except for that last part. And maybe one more thing.

“People can expect great baseball,” Stephenson said. “The game is the same. That’s the one thing we want to make sure people know, that the game is the same. We play seven innings, so that’s the only difference.

“The locker room banter is the same, the dugout chatter is the same. We might not hit as many balls over the fence, although we have a couple girls on our team who could probably do that, but we understand the technical side of ball, we play a lot of small ball, we have to find ways to manufacture runs, defence is critically important, you can’t give up extra bases.

“I really hope people understand that we know the game, we understand the intricacies of the game; that’s what makes baseball a really fun game. You have to be a smart ballplayer – not only an athlete, but a smart athlete. People will see that when they come and watch. They might be pleasantly surprised.”

What also adds excitement to this tournament in particular is the field of competition. With four-time reigning World Cup champions Team Japan not in the Pan Am Games, the classic Canada and USA rivalry will take centre stage. The country north of the border will also square off against Cuba, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.

“It’s a short tournament,” the 32-year-old infielder said. “It’s only going to be a week long, so that’s actually shorter than we’re used to. To win gold you might only play five games if you get a bye to the final and finish first in the round robin.

“Obviously our toughest competition will be Team USA but Venezuela will also be very good. Cuba, you never know what they’re going to bring to the table. Their men’s team is phenomenal, their women’s program has been up-and-coming, and we’ve never seen Puerto Rico, so I have no idea what to expect from them, but I don’t expect them to be a soft game. Team USA would be our biggest competition, but the teams are going to be very competitive and … you can’t have a bad game.”

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The Women’s National Team knows that international tournaments are do-or-die, and after finishing fourth in the most recent World Cup in Miyazaki, Japan in September, they will be looking to come out stronger than ever to mark their presence and put a stamp on their inaugural appearance in a Pan Am tournament.

Canada’s roster will be smaller than usual, with fewer spots available because of the duration of the event. But Stephenson believes this will allow team manager André Lachance the opportunity to only take the best of the best, so the country north of the border can bring everything in its arsenal to face its most difficult test yet.

“We usually carry 20 people and [for the tournament our roster] is down to 18,” Stephenson said. “I like that a little bit. There’s some tough competition. The veteran players like myself have to keep working hard in the off-season because the younger kids are up, and want a chance to compete for Canada we well, especially at the first-ever [appearance] in the Pan Ams.

“Everybody is gunning for it, so the competition is going to be fierce. I actually like that we have to look over our shoulder. That’s going to make us all better. The young kids are gunning for it, and the veterans have to earn their spots, and Andre has made that crystal clear. It makes for a competitive training camp and it will be really interesting on May 16 to see who those final 18 players are.”

Selection camp for the Women’s National Team roster will take place in Toronto from May 10-17, with the squad splitting time between Rogers Centre and Connorvale Park. Before the tournament begins in Ajax, the final 18 players will play a series of exhibition games, starting their road trip in Quebec and making their way back to Ontario for the Games.

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Alexis Brudnicki

Baseball has been a part of Alexis' life since her parents took her brother to sign up for Eager Beaver Baseball in London. Alexis wanted to play and asked to sign up, too. Alexis played ball until the boys were all twice her size and then switched to competitive fastball. Her first job was as an umpire for rookies with the EBBA and since then Alexis has completed her education with an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and graduate studies in Sports Journalism at Centennial College