National teams from Mexico and Japan – shown here during last year’s event – will both return to next week’s Canadian Open.

First pitch nears at Canadian Open

World championships, Olympic chances provide boost to annual fastpitch tournament

With just over a week to go before the first pitch is thrown at the Canadian Open Fastpitch International Championship, preparations are ramping up.

“We’re in the final stretch of the tunnel here – everything is prepped and set,” said tournament chair Greg Timm.

The teams, too, are getting ready for the annual tournament, which will see more than 1,300 top-level players – on more than 80 teams in five divisions – take to the fields at Softball City, Cloverdale Athletic Park and Sunnyside Park.

The event runs July 3-14, and the five divisions will run concurrently. The women’s division – which features national teams from across the globe – runs July 3-13, while the Futures Gold (U19) and Showcase Gold (U16) tournaments will run from July 6-12. Two shorter tournaments – Futures Select and Showcase Select – will be held July 3-6.

The championship game of the women’s division will take place on the evening of Monday, July 13.

In total, more than 300 games will be played over 11 days.

Last year, Japan finished first after a 7-0 win over the United States in the title tilt. Canada was in the mix, too, but lost to the Americans 9-2 in the semifinals.

This week, the Canadian women’s squad released its official roster for this year’s tournament – a lineup that includes six B.C. players, and plenty of names which will be familiar to fans who’ve taken in previous tournaments.

One Surrey player, former White Rock Renegade star Sara Groenewegen, and a pair of Delta players, infielder Jennifer Yee and Jocelyn Cater, were among the 17 announced by Softball Canada Monday morning.

And while the Canadian Open – and its predecessor, the Canada Cup, before it – has always been one of the marquee events on the international softball calendar, it should gain even more attention in the fastpitch community because it’s the last Canadian Open before the 2016 Women’s World Championships, which will also be held at Softball City next July.

“We’ve had a lot of interest because of the world championships next year,” Timm said, adding that some teams are “testing the waters” this year before committing to the 2016 event.

Cuba, for example, is slated to compete at the Open, prior to heading east for the Pan-Am Games in Toronto.

“In all my years – at the Canadian Open and the Canada Cup before that – we’ve never been able to get Cuba to come,” Timm said. “We’re really excited.”

Aside from Cuba, other international teams – including Mexico and Puerto Rico – are also using this year’s tournament as a Pan-Am warmup, Timm said.

As well, the tournament is buoyed by the fact that women’s fastpitch is – once again – back in the mix for possible reinstatement into the Summer Olympics, in time for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

It’s not the first time softball, which along with baseball was cut from the Olympic docket in 2005 and last played in 2008, has been considered for re-admittance into the Olympics.

In the summer of 2013, softball was denied entry into the 2016 and 2020 events – finishing second to wrestling – but in recent years, host countries have been given more of a say in which sports are played at their respective Olympics.

Considering Japan is a powerhouse of women’s softball – they’re the reigning world champions, and have won multiple Canadian Open titles – Tokyo organizers are expected to make a push for the sport’s inclusion.

In December, it was announced softball – along with baseball – was under consideration for 2020, and last week, the two diamond sports were named finalists, alongside less traditional Olympic sports such as bowling, roller sports, sport climbing, squash, surfing, karate and wushu.

Delegations from each sport are expected to make presentations in August 2016, and sports to be added – if any – will be announced a month later.

Timm said the potential for re-inclusion into the Olympics can do nothing but provide a boost to young ballplayers, many of whom will be competing at the Open.

“We’re trying to inspire them, and inspire them to the highest steps of the sport,” he said.

“Right now, that goal is the world championships, and if the Olympics come back, that just ups it that many more notches.”

It’s especially important for the national team’s younger players – like Groenewegen, who is an All-American at the University of Minnesota – who could potentially form the backbone of a future Olympic squad in five years.

“It’s something we’ve talked about a lot,” said Groenewegen from Ontario, where she was taking part in a training camp with the national team.

“Back in 2005, (when softball was voted out), there were a lot of players who should’ve played in the Olympics but never got the chance,” said Timm. “But all we can do now is look forward, and I’m very hopeful.”

For more on this year’s Canadian Open tournament, www.canadianopenfastpitch.com