World Series shows softball growth for non-US programs
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — USA Softball executive director Craig Cress hopes the Women's College World Series offered a glimpse of the sport's future.
In Game 1 of the championship series last week, Florida State pitcher Meghan King faced Washington's Gabbie Plain. In Game 2, King's opponent was Washington's Taran Alvelo. King earned wins in both games and led Florida State to its first national title .
The impact went well beyond the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex. King and Alvelo are Americans with Puerto Rican ties who will try to help the U.S. territory qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Plain is a freshman from Australia who is a part of her country's national program.
Two other World Series pitchers — Florida's Aleshia Ocasio and Arizona State's Giselle "G'' Juarez — are on Puerto Rico's squad. Other World Series participants who play for Puerto Rico are Florida State's Carsyn Gordon and Korina Rosario and Florida's Jamie Hoover. Washington's Morganne Flores is a Puerto Rico team member who was injured and didn't play for the Huskies this season. Canada and Mexico also had national team representation in Oklahoma City.
Softball was in the Olympics from 1996 to 2008, but left out in 2012 and 2016 before returning for the Tokyo Games. The United States and Japan are the only nations to win gold, with the United States winning three times and Japan winning once. Cress said the World Series success for players with national teams outside the mainland U.S. is the kind of progress needed to help softball remain in the Olympics long term and become a truly global sport.
"I think the main reason that got voted out was that it's looked at as an American sport," Cress said. "And the IOC (International Olympic Committee) is not made up of (just) Americans, obviously."
The United States will head to Japan for a series June 20-23, and the Paris 2024 Olympics delegation will be represented. Cress said his group will join Japan in trying to convince the Paris officials that softball and baseball should be on the program.
The United States set a goal of globalizing the sport in the early 2000s, and the focus has ramped up with the Olympics approaching. U.S. coach Ken Eriksen said other nations have been improving for many years.
"It's important for the critics to realize that the USA program is really, really good," Eriksen said. "It just so happens that everybody else is really, really good. The world is getting better. There's hope among these other countries that they can now participate on the same playing level as the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, so they are putting more money and resources into these programs."
Other nations have scoured the United States for players with heritage from their countries, with plenty of help from American coaches and officials. Florida State coach Lonni Alameda connected with former Florida State player Jessica Boulware (formerly van der Linden), a pitching coach for Puerto Rico, on King's behalf. Now, King is a key member of Puerto Rico's squad.
"She loved it, stayed with it, and it has helped her so much," Alameda said. "International softball is just a whole 'nother level. She's just really comfortable."
Tommy Velazquez, president of the Puerto Rico Softball Federation, paid attention as King dominated the World Series with four wins, a save and a record for lowest earned run average.
"She is an amazing pitcher," Velazquez said. "I think we both are growing in the process. She is learning about international competition and international teams, the big scenario. Our team received an outstanding pitcher and our performance increased automatically."
King will help as Puerto Rico prepares for the World Championships in August in Chiba, Japan. Mexico, Canada and Australia are among the 16 nations that will compete in the Olympic qualifying tournament.
Washington coach Heather Tarr won the 2009 national title with current Canadian national team pitcher Danielle Lawrie. This time, she got to the championship series with Plain, who is from Sydney, Australia.
"We live on the Pacific Rim, so we would be foolish not to explore opportunities, whether they are in Australia or Canada," said Tarr, an assistant coach for the U.S. "Maybe we can't get the kids from Georgia or Florida to come up to Seattle, so regionally, it does make sense for us to connect with our Pacific Rim associates."
Alameda said Florida State's Savanna Copeland, who is from Fishers, Indiana, will play for Canada this summer. She'll join a roster that is mostly Canadian born but has several players who competed for major U.S. colleges.
Mexico's program has U.S. players with Mexican heritage — Oklahoma's Eliyah Flores is part of its program. Team USA's most recent loss was to Mexico and former Arizona State pitcher Dallas Escobedo in the Pan-American Championship last year. The United States went through the losers' bracket to win the tournament, but Mexico left an impression.
"They've done a nice job going out and recruiting former collegiate players here," Cress said.
Velazquez said Puerto Rico's team will likely be 90 percent Americans, and the Philippines also has several U.S. players. But Tarr said stopping at nations relying heavily on U.S. players with foreign heritage isn't enough.
"I personally, being involved with international softball, too, care a lot about the organic growth of the sport in these countries," she said. "It's fine for people to go in there and help them build their nation's teams, but it's more important that they are truly there, because otherwise, softball might not continue to be in the Olympics."
Eriksen said the organic process has started. He saw evidence when nations such as Uganda, Kenya and India sent teams to the world championships in 2016.
"They are starting to cultivate the bottom of their programs," he said. "Now that there are more players in their countries, the game is getting better in their countries and they won't have to go to the United States, they'll have them in their own countries. That's the ultimate goal."
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