Canadians hope experience, home-field advantage and hitting pay off at worlds
While many Canadian athletes are preparing for the Olympics in London later this month, Canada's women's softball team will play its ultimate competition on home soil.
But the expectation is no different as Canada prepares for the world championships, which start Friday in Whitehorse.
"We're going for gold," said outfielder Caitlin Lever. "We've been building up the team for a while now. We've got a good core of vets and group of new kids. With a lot of youth on other teams, it's our time to attack."
Canada will face Taiwan in its opening game. The Canadians are looking to build on a bronze medal in 2010, when they reached the podium at a major international competition for the first time.
Softball was removed from the Olympic program following the 2008 Beijing Games. Although Canada and other countries have lobbied extensively for the sport's return since then, the International Olympic Committee has refused. As a result, softball will not gain re-entry until at least 2020.
But the worlds, which are now held every two years, are just as important to Lever, who was born in Buffalo while her father Don was playing for the NHL's Sabres.
"I don't think it changes the mindset," said Lever, a five-year national team veteran who played in the Beijing Olympics. "There's definitely a reaction there. It's sad not to have our sport in the Olympics. It's a great sport, and the Olympics have not seen the last of it. It's almost fighting for your sport to get back in, and (the world championship tournament) pretty much takes the place of the Olympics now. You're competing at the height of what your sport can offer, and that's everything."
Canada will be relying on its core of veterans, which include star pitcher Danielle Lawrie of Langley, B.C., whose brother Brett plays third base for the Toronto Blue Jays. Next to the benefit of playing at home, experience is one of the few advantages that the hosts have in the tight 16-team field.
"A huge thing, with the veterans and the staff, is just slowing the game down and, when the stage gets bigger, making it the same game that you show up (for) and play every day," said Lever. "It's huge presence-wise to show up at the field and own the field and take the field (thinking) it's your game."
Lever and crew are coming off a disappointing fourth-place finish in the Canada Cup in Surrey, B.C., following a 7-0 loss to Australia on Monday in the bronze-medal game. But Canada played the entire tournament without Lawrie and Jennifer Salling of Port Coquitlam, B.C., while Lever only got into the bronze-medal game, because they had commitments with their U.S.-based pro teams. All three will suit up at the worlds.
"We're put in a good position to do well," said Lever. "We've just got to take care of (ourselves) and make sure Canada doesn't beat Canada. I don't see why we wouldn't make it out of our pool on top."
Coach Mark Smith believes fatigue caught up to his club at the Canada Cup following a gruelling training camp and World Cup, where Canada placed third behind the U.S. and Australia.
"Our expectations are that we're going to play at home and we're going to play well, and we'd like to be playing in that (final) game on Sunday the 22nd," said Smith.
Smith rates the U.S., which won the 2010 world title, and Japan, which took second there and also won the Canada Cup this week, as the teams to beat.
"The United States, in years gone by, seemed to be a full step ahead of everybody else," said Smith. "But I wouldn't say that's necessarily the case going into this tournament. They have a fairly inexperienced team in terms of international experience."
Any number of other teams could also excel, he added, but many are rebuilding and will have little time to progress within their respective two preliminary-round pools.
Canada's pool includes Australia and Japan. Teams that finish first and second will cross over and play each other under a double-knockout playoff format, while third and fourth-place teams will also cross over to play each other, but be subject to single-knockout elimination.
In addition to home-field advantage and experience, Canada will also rely on its depth. The team struggled in the field against Australia at the Canada Cup, committing uncharacteristic errors. But infielders and outfielders are usually consistent with their gloves.
Smith also expects his squad to shine in the batter's box.
"We'going to be seven to eight quality hitters deep in our lineup," said Smith. "If those people perform the way they're capable of, we should do OK."