Danielle Lawrie pitches the ball

Softball’s Mission: Beat the U.S.A.

Canada’s starting pitcher Danielle Lawrie (Langley, B.C.) winds up during the women’s softball preliminary game against the Netherlands at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Lawrie, a former NCAA star, is the ace of the pitching staff.

With the XVI Pan American Games coming up this October, a unique group of teams will represent Canada in Guadalajara, Mexico. All summer long, we profile the nine sports in which Canada competes only at the Pan American Games.

Heading into the Pan American Games this fall, Softball Canada is faced with a familiar challenge. Only this time they plan on overcoming it.

From Atlanta 1996 to Beijing 2008, Softball was also contested at the Olympic Games. Canada contended for a medal on the Olympic level, peaking at fourth place, three years ago in China. But at the Pan Am Games, Canada has medalled on nearly every occasion, winning the silver medal in four of the last five competitions. Each time, the United States claimed gold, a trend Canada is hoping to change, especially with no Olympic Games competition on the horizon.

“The Pan Am Games are really important to us, because the sport is no longer an Olympic sport,” said Gilles LeBlanc, Manager of Marketing and Communications Services at Softball Canada. “It’s always an event that we’re certainly medal threats every single time we go there and it gives us another opportunity to face the U.S. and try to beat them.”

The International Olympic Committee made the decision to drop softball, which was played only by women in the Olympic Games, along with baseball from the London 2012 program in July 2005. Both will remain on the sidelines for Rio 2016, but were recently announced on the short list of consideration for the 2020 Games. For now, though, Canada will focus on Guadalajara 2011.

The game of softball differs from baseball in a number of areas that mostly fall under a common theme. Many components of the game tend to be shorter, including the bats, dimensions of the field, the outfield fences, the pitching and base distances, and even the game itself – with seven innings instead of nine. The ball, on the other hand, is larger, coloured yellow instead of white, and is pitched underhand as opposed to overhand. Each variation contributes to the game, making it unique.

“There really isn’t much room for error,” said LeBlanc. “You have to have much quicker reaction time. It’s very exciting, very quick and if you ever have the chance to see a game, you’ll be blown away by how fast it is. You’re not sitting in the bleachers for four hours waiting for a game to be over. It’s very quick and that’s something that we take pride in.”

The team’s composition is another difference. Unlike baseball, where rosters are limited to minor league professionals of Major League Baseball teams, Softball Canada has access to the best players in the country. Approximately 70 to 80 per cent of the roster features Canadian players who ply their trade in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) at colleges around the United States. The rest of the squad is made up of home-grown talent who have trained in Canada and been a part of the National team for several years.

One important veteran who has competed south of the border that Canada will potentially turn to for the Pan Am Games is ace pitcher Danielle Lawrie – a member of Team Canada since 2005, including the Beijing Olympic Games. The Langley, B.C. native played for the University of Washington Huskies from 2006 until 2010, where she won a National championship and back-to-back NCAA Player of the Year awards. The sister of Toronto Blue Jays’ third base prospect and fellow Beijing Olympian Brett Lawrie holds the Huskies’ records for wins, shutouts, strikeouts, starts, appearances, complete games and innings.

Other key names who participated in Beijing and who may join Lawrie in Mexico are second base Jennifer Yee (North Delta, B.C.), catcher Kaleigh Rafter (Guelph, Ont.), left fielder Melanie Matthews (Surrey, B.C.), and shortstops Megan Timpf (Port Dover, Ont.) and Jennifer Salling (Port Coquitlam, B.C.).

“Those players are unbelievable,” said LeBlanc. “We had most of them at the World Championships last year and they did a fantastic job for us (winning Canada’s first Worlds medal since 1978). They also have a very good influence on our younger players and really show (them) what they need to do on a daily basis to compete at the international level.”

With Guadalajara 2011 quickly approaching, Canada will turn to those players in an effort to finally capture their elusive Pan Am Games title.

“The Pan Am Games are that big stage where Canada and the U.S. are always the top two teams battling it out,” said LeBlanc. “We certainly expect to play them again this year and we fully expect to beat them. That’s what we’ve been training our players to do.”