A group of diehard softball fans in the outfield bleachers at Softball City’s main diamond have a little something extra to cheer about at this year’s Canadian Open Fastpitch International Championship – the return of Jenn Salling.
The 28-year-old shortstop from Port Coquitlam – whose “clan” of family and friends, she says, are fixtures in the left-field bleachers each year – has returned to the Canadian national team this summer after spending the last three years playing in the National Pro Fastpitch League in the U.S.
Though leaving the pro ranks was difficult – Salling spent three seasons with the USSSA Florida Pride in Kissimmee, Fla. before being traded to the Pennsylvania Rebellion – there were plenty of reasons to return to Canada, not the least of which was being able to play in front of her family again.
“I was just kind of ready to move on from the pro league, and obviously we have two big events here in Canada – the Pan-Am Games this summer (in Toronto) and then the world championships here in Surrey next year – so being able to get a chance to play in those events was really important to me,” she said.
“But (playing pro) was a great experience – there is so much talent there, it’s a great league. I think that anyone who ever gets the chance to do it, should definitely try.”
The left-handed hitting Salling, known as something of a defensive whiz in the field, played for the national team from 2006-12, and is one of just four current team members with Olympic experience – second baseman Jen Yee, third baseman Megan Timpf and catcher Kaleigh Rafter are the others who played at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the last time softball was on the Olympic docket.
Her experience is a welcome addition to the team, head coach Mark Smith said, though for her part, Salling said she eased back into a leadership role after her three-year absence.
“It was important for me to realize that I haven’t been here for three years, and there were a lot of new players who I didn’t know, and who didn’t know me,” she said.
“It’s not just about jumping in and saying, ‘OK, here, this is what we’re gonna do.’ That’s not my personality.
“But it’s really good to be back.”
Last year, when Salling decided she wanted to return to the national-team fold, she called Smith to discuss the opportunity, and he, in turn, invited her back. Despite her history, however, she wasn’t gifted a roster spot. She went through the same training camps as everyone else, she said, and it wasn’t until last December that she knew she’d made the squad.
“It’s not just, ‘Oh, you’re back on the team because you’ve been here before.’ You have to work at it, and I had to play well to make him believe in me. You have to convince (the coaches) that you’re going to bust your butt every single day for this team.”
Smith – who said he was “certainly happy” to have fielded a phone call from Salling last year – said once she settled back into the program, the benefits on the field, and off, were noticeable.
“It’s been interesting to watch her, because we have a fairly quiet group here – that’s just the personalities of the girls. There’s some chatter, but there’s not a real dominant presence, and Jenn can be that when she wants to be. She can be loud out there, she can take charge,” he said.
While Smith knows his younger players have learned under Salling – “and are better for it,” he said – he’s also noticed that even the team’s veteran infielders, like Yee and Timpf, are playing with a newfound confidence and assertiveness.
“There’s a difference in someone like (Yee), because she knows she has Jenn to her right again. She’s used to that, it’s familiar. And the same goes for Megan and the others.
“It’s been a positive return, all the way around.”