Decision day for women's team hopefuls

* The 32-player camp was slashed to 18 by manager Andre Lachance as Canada readies for the women's Pan Am championships in Ajax in July. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki. ....

* The 32-player camp was slashed to 18 by manager Andre Lachance as Canada readies for the women's Pan Am championships in Ajax in July. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki. ....

TORONTO, Ont. – One by one, each of the 32 participants in the Canadian Women’s National Team selection camp for the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games were called upon to speak with team manager Andre Lachance at the squad’s hotel on Saturday night, as the week of tryouts in Toronto came to a close on Sunday. 

Emotions ran high, nerves were widespread, the pits of stomachs felt more obviously than at most other times. 

Eighteen players were chosen to the final roster to compete in Ajax in July, and the remaining 14 were informed that this just wasn’t their time. 

It wasn’t for lack of talent – this was the best turnout of baseball players the women’s program has seen since it started in 2004. It wasn’t because of attitude – the camaraderie among the hopeful athletes was incredibly strong all week long – how often do you see a batter pop up or strike out and then turn around and give the hitter behind them a pat on the back and words of encouragement? 

You’re guaranteed to see it here with this group. Every time. 

It just came down to numbers, and this isn’t the final stop for the chosen few. This is just the beginning. The women will be representing the country north of the border on home soil as they compete in their first multi-sport event ever. Beyond winning gold, they want to make their mark, solidify a spot for their sport in the next such tournament, and help young women everywhere realize that they too can reach the highest heights with an atypical sport choice. 

For all of the aforementioned reasons, that’s why this is the time that is most important for the 14 players who didn’t make the final cut. 

That sinking feeling can be devastating. Thoughts pour in of why a player wasn’t good enough, what if this had been different, what if this had happened there, will the player ever be able to make it, and what to do next. 

Thoughts of quitting rise to the forefront, which is exactly the opposite of what the sport needs at this very important time. 

“I’m so excited for women’s baseball in general to be on that stage because we deserve it,” Team Canada second baseman Nicole Luchanski (Edmonton, Alta.) said. “I can’t wait for girls and women everywhere to see us play at the same level as everyone else in the Pan Ams and realize that women’s baseball is a really great sport and they should be involved and play and never be pushed out of it or quit.” 

Many of the women involved press on because they want the future to be easier for young, female baseball players. They shouldn’t have to quit. They shouldn’t need to convert to a smaller diamond and a bigger ball and play softball instead. So what kind of message would it send if they quit now, especially with another World Cup coming up next year and hopefully more international tournaments in the near future?

“It means a lot for people to keep going,” shortstop Bradi Wall said. “It’s devastating not to make the team, and to a lot it may seem like it’s the end of the road, but why not keep going? We have Pan Ams this year, and we bounce right back to a World Cup next year so there’s no break at all. 

“This is the first time we’re in Pan Ams and there’s only room to grow for women’s baseball, so why not grow and why not get everybody back at it? It’s going to be hard but let this light the fire, let this get everybody going again.”

Added first baseman Kate Psota: “This is just one of hopefully many opportunities. I know it’s important because it’s in Canada, but hopefully this opens the door for so many more girls to get involved, and the young ones to move forward. 

“You don’t want [the players who didn’t make the final roster] to give up. You want them to keep going. It is hard. You see their faces and they’re so rejected, but they don’t understand that this didn’t even exist when I was the age of some of them. I started at 18 and that’s when the program [began].”

The Women’s National Team program has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception over a decade ago, and that growth is what led to such a competitive camp, with talent like the squad has never seen before. Players came in hungry and ready to go. The upcoming event means more to the female baseball players than it might to athletes who have been on the stage previously, and no one was taking the opportunity for granted. 

“This is the strongest that we’ve ever had for sure,” Psota said, a Burlington, Ont., native with six World Cups under her belt. “I commented on it multiple times this week – from when we started in 2004 to this camp now, it’s unbelievable the difference. Before, you could easily pick out in the first few days who wasn’t going to make it. 

“This camp came right down to the wire and I was nervous. I’ve been here for over 10 years, this is my 11th season, and I was nervous. That speaks volumes to the younger girls. They are getting so much better and they’re constantly pushing us. I took a couple of them aside yesterday and said, ‘You better not go home and throw in the towel. You better keep working hard and keep pushing.’ I know they’re going to be around for a long time.” 

Added Wall, a Swift Current, Sask., native: “This week was the most competitive I’ve seen women’s baseball be … I didn’t know what to expect initially, but we came out and everybody battled every at-bat, every pitch. Everybody knew what was at stake and they played like everybody wanted to make it. It was a great experience it’s a great upside to women’s baseball because we know that we have 32 strong players. Any one of those girls could have made the team.” 

While Lachance got to share in the excitement for the players he and his coaching staff selected to the Pan Am roster, he was also dealt the task of delivering the news to those who were departing the group early. But the level of talent he saw throughout the selection camp and the difficulty he had in making those final decisions are exciting for the future of the sport. 

“It’s a good problem to have such a great pool of athletes,” he said. “Go back 12 years ago and we didn’t have that luxury of picking athletes. We had to go chase them and find them everywhere. Now they’re coming to us…It’s a good problem to have to be honest. I prefer to have that than what it was 10 years ago. 

“Some of those guys [who didn’t make it] are 16 and 17 years old, so they will have lots of opportunities. These guys won’t play forever. Some of them have been here for 12 years, so at some point they're going to move onto other things. It’s important for them to understand and important for us to give them the motivation that it’s going to be their turn.

“There will hopefully be another Pan Am Games in four years – that’s the plan – hopefully we’re going to remain a Pan Am Games sport, and there are going to be some other opportunities … the future of this team is pretty bright right now so I am pretty happy about that.”  

Lachance hopes that instead of throwing in the towel, the women who weren’t selected will use the experience as motivation, and help them grow as competitive athletes, ready for what comes next. 

“They could quit,” the manager said. “Or they can take the examples of others who have not failed but didn’t make it in the past, and see where they are right now. It’s a matter of taking that experience and going with it. Every athlete going through those types of things needs to be positive, and I know in the moment it’s disappointing but when they reflect on it they get better as people and as athletes.” 

While things look positive down the road for the sport, the immediate future for Team Canada looks incredibly bright as well. With such a deep pool of talent to choose from, the final squad is very competitive and anxious to get together again to start preparing together for the tournament in July. 

“We’re looking strong,” Wall said. “Having every single person battle for position, we have a strong 18 and that’s going to be great news for us. We’re going to have to obviously battle every single game, but with the right grit and the right amount of determination we’re going to have a really good chance. We’re expecting nothing less than gold.” 

The team’s skipper echoed his shortstop’s sentiment. 

“We expect to win,” Lachance said. “Every time we step on the field we want to win and the goal is to win a gold medal. There’s no doubt about that. We have the team to accomplish that. Defensively we’re solid, we have depth in pitching also, and we can hit.” 

Added Psota: “It’s going to be exciting for sure. We’ve got so much talent. The girls have been working so hard … and you can expect big things.”