Getting to know the Canadian Women's National team

By: Alexis Brudnicki

AJAX, Ont. – They are your first-ever Pan Am Games silver medal winners in women’s baseball.

The Canadian Women’s National Team matched its best-ever finish, capturing the silver medal in its first-ever multi-sport event at the Pan Am Games in Ajax, after bringing home silver from Japan in the third Women’s Baseball World Cup in 2008.

So who are they?

The program has been on the baseball scene since the inception of the women’s squad in 2004, but it’s about time that everyone gets to know them a little bit better, because they’re here to stay, starting with the only two players who remain from that inaugural season 11 years ago.

Kate Psota and Ashley Stephenson have held down Team Canada’s infield for over a decade, playing first and third base, respectively. Both are former hockey players, graduates of Laurier University, and hail from Burlington, Ont., where they currently work. They are also two members of the only women’s team in the country in the Toronto Baseball Association.

Combined, the two players won nine Ontario University Athletics hockey championships, a couple of them together, and Stephenson was later inducted into the Golden Hawks Hall of Fame. After spending time in Australia playing ball, 29-year-old Psota now works at a local garden centre.

At 32, Stephenson is the oldest player on the team, suiting up with a couple of youngsters in Claire Eccles (Surrey, BC) and Kelsey Lalor (Red Deer, Alta.), who are the same age as the students she teaches as the head of the Phys. Ed department at Frank Hayden Secondary School.

“We have a cop, we have a doctor, a couple PhDs – we’re a smart group, actually,” Stephenson said. “We’re bright. We’ve always grown up like that right, so when you’re a kid you go to school and you play. Now I just go to work, which is still school, and then I still play.

“So for us it’s a little different maybe than the guys…but all the girls, we’re just used to that. Some people say it’s a disadvantage. Obviously we’d love to play baseball for a living, but we don’t and we’ve never had that opportunity. I have a job that I absolutely love and I have people there who are extremely supportive and then I play baseball and I love it. So for me it’s kind of the best of both worlds.”

Eccles and Lalor are both 17, took their first trips with Baseball Canada in September last year to their first World Cup in Japan, and both played in Canada’s gold medal game on Sunday, but that’s where their similarities end. Eccles is a left-handed pitcher who just finished high school and is heading to UBC, and Lalor still has a year to go before pursuing post-secondary plans.

Three of the Canadian national squad members are currently working toward their PhDs with Team Canada veterans Melissa Armstrong (Saskatoon, Sask.) and Amanda Asay (Prince George, BC) in pursuit, and Jenna Flannigan (Cornwall, Ont.) planning to start hers in September after she completes her Masters of Science in Human Kinetics in August.

Armstrong, a 25-year-old right-handed reliever and utility player for Team Canada, has completed two years of her PhD in South African History at the Carleton after finishing her Masters at Oxford University. Asay, 27, played hockey and softball at Brown University during her undergrad, and is now at the University of British Columbia in her second year of her PhD in the Department of Forest and Conservation Services in the faculty of Forestry.

“There are a lot of people doing a lot of different things,” Asay said. “None of us are professional athletes, so we’re all taking time off work and off school. It’s huge to come here and be able to play on this stage. It’s an indescribable feeling. For myself, I had fantastic support from my supervisor and my…support system back home with my PhD.”

Becky Hartley (Whiterock, BC) is the doctor of the team, as a plastic surgery resident at the University of Calgary. Before the 30-year-old finished her Doctor of Medicine at UBC, she played softball at Simon Fraser University throughout her undergrad, also playing in Spain before returning home. Both Flannigan, 23, and Hartley have been with the national program for three years.

A trio of silver medallists hail from La Belle Province, righty Vanessa Riopel (Repentigny), catcher and anchor behind the plate Steph Savoie (La Pocatiere), and right-hander Jessica Berube (Quebec City). The 25-year-old backstop is a gym teacher at home and was named the tournament’s best catcher at the last two World Cups in a row. Riopel, also 25, is hoping to execute her plans of someday teaching, and 22-year-old Berube works in the retail industry.

“I’m a physical education teacher, so it’s easy for me during the summer to come here,” Savoie said. “But during the off-season I train a lot in the gym. I’ve found times to do that because it’s important. And for my role behind the plate, I have to be in shape because one week like this, if I’m not in shape I can’t do what I’ve been doing.”

The gold medal game starter also qualifies for the Parapan American Games because Riopel was born with a club foot and has had to work around having two different sized feet, among the other issues that come with it, for her entire life, making each impressive feat all that much more unbelievable.

Right-hander Heidi Northcott [Rocky Mountain House, Alta.) and outfielder Niki Boyd (Surrey, BC), both 22, recently graduated post-secondary school, the hurler from UBC-Okanagan, and Boyd from Douglas College, where she played softball. Northcott has been on the national team for five years, following in the footsteps of her father Harold, who played and coached for Baseball Canada, along with Dwayne Lalor, Kelsey’s dad. Boyd has been with the squad for four years and also works retail at home.

Ella Matteucci (Fruitvale, BC) just graduated from Clarkson, where she and the Golden Knights won the first NCAA hockey championship in school history, taking the title in her junior season last year. The 22-year-old utility player in her third year with Team Canada never missed a chance to get on the ice, setting a new school record for games played. 

“Hockey’s my winter sport, but my pride is just in the game of baseball,” Matteucci said. “I’ve played it since I was four years old and I’ve been playing hockey since I was six, so it was kind of my first sport; my first love. I’m just excited for the opportunity to…represent Canada in the Pan Am Games.”

The woman who pitched Canada into the gold medal game is right-hander Autumn Mills (London, Ont.). As a police officer in the Halton Region to follow up a collegiate hockey career at York University, the 10-year veteran of the national team has had to work around her hectic and erratic schedule to fit in time to spend on the diamond, but it’s all been worthwhile for the 27-year-old in the end.

“No doubt,” Mills said. “I mean, work has been supportive of it, however I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices – such as sleep – to be here and make sure I’m ready to perform. It’s been a tough balance, but it’s definitely worth it.”

Backup catcher-turned-first baseman Jen Gilroy pushed her way into the lineup every day after making some big off-season changes to her routine and diet, and couldn’t be happier with the results. The six-year member of Team Canada is also a team leader of security Trillium Health Partners when she’s away from the ballpark.

“It has been the most amazing thing in my life,” Gilroy, 25, said. “Not only just looking forward to the Games, but to see the supporters come out of nowhere has really just made this experience even more for me. It’s not about baseball…

“We’ve had support before from our community, from our inner circle, but now it’s slowly reaching out to other people and it’s just so amazing for them to give us the support, to let us go out there and have the confidence that people are actually behind us and are actually recognizing just feels amazing to have people behind us.”

Holding down the middle infield together for the last five years are shortstop Bradi Wall (Swift Current, Sask.) and second baseman Nicole Luchanski (Edmonton, Alta.). Wall graduated from the University of Iowa, where the 23-year-old played for the softball team and was named to the Academic All-Big Ten team as a senior, and works retail in Guelph, Ont., where she recently moved.

Nine-year national squad infielder Luchanski earned enough sponsorships heading into the Games to leave her job as a forester and assistant logging engineer – after graduating from the University of Alberta – and pursue athletics on a full-time basis, at least for now, becoming the first woman from the program ever to do so.

“It’s funny,” Luchanski, 25, said. “At first it was a lot of pressure, because I felt the need to be way better because I was the only one who had all those advantages. But in the end I realize that I really just needed to play my game. It has been huge just to get those extra little steps…It’s just little things piling up and piling up until you’re suddenly a step above where you were last year.”

The women’s program is several steps above where it was 11 years ago when it began, bringing the sport to a bigger stage and achieving goals the squad – and its manager Andre Lachance – never thought possible.

“If you go back 10 years ago, I would have laughed at you guys if you had told me we’d be here at the Pan Am Games,” Lachance said. “It shows how much the provinces stepped up in Canada, it shows also how other countries stepped up to develop girls. We’ve come a long way for sure.”

A long way, and not without sacrifice. Being on the world stage among other competitors from other disciplines and growing the sport right from their own country, Team Canada’s women have put in the time and effort to make it all possible.

“Obviously it means the world to us,” Stephenson said. “Lots of us have jobs, up at five-thirty to train before work, or staying late doing some training after working late hours. People gave up all their vacation time to be here.

“We’ve been together for three weeks [and] it’s been a fantastic three weeks, but some people are going back. We have a police officer who works tomorrow night, midnights, because she’s out of vacation time because we took it all. There are all kinds of sacrifices people make, but we love to play ball.

“So you can say it’s a sacrifice or you can say that this was the opportunity of a lifetime; maybe a little bit of both.”