White Rock’s Groenewegen balances pro, Team Canada commitments

Elgin Park Secondary grad playing for Akron Racers in first pro fastpitch season

Sara Groenewegen can be forgiven this summer if she doesn’t know if she’s coming or going.

Or, more specifically – where she is going. And what fastpitch uniform she’s supposed to wear when she gets there.

The summer softball season is always busy for the 22-year-old Semiahmoo Peninsula pitcher – a former White Rock Renegade star who has played with Canada’s national program since 2013 – but this year has been especially exhausting. Groenewegen has moved seamlessly, and without more than a few days off, from the completion of her final NCAA season at the University of Minnesota to her pro debut with the Akron Racers to joining up with the national team at the Canada Cup, which was held earlier this month in South Surrey.

When the Canada Cup wrapped up July 17, she boarded a plane bound for Texas, where she was to meet up with her Akron teammates, and she’ll spend much of this summer balancing the Racers’ National Pro Fastpitch schedule with her Team Canada itinerary, which includes trips to the Dominican Republic and Japan.

“It’s been a very different summer… it’s been crazy,” she told Peace Arch News earlier this month, during a break in her Canada Cup schedule.

“Three different teams, three different environments, lots of travel – it takes its toll on you,” she said.

“It’s always an adjustment – I’ve played on three teams in the matter of a month, so it’s always just a matter of adjusting back to the team you’re on, but I’ve settled in.”

Originally, Groenewegen wasn’t expected at her home tournament in South Surrey – Canada Cup organizer Greg Timm told PAN in June that he didn’t expect her to make the trip due to her new pro commitments – but at the last minute, Racers’ brass decided to accommodate their star rookie’s busy schedule.

“(Team Canada head coach Mark) Smith thought it would be a good idea to come back home… and we have a lot of pitchers on our staff (in Akron), so my team owner and manager let me leave for a week-and-a-half,” she said.

“There’s nothing like playing at home, and it’s definitely something I didn’t want to miss.”

Groenewegen was the Racers’ first-round pick – second overall – in the U.S.-based National Pro Fastpitch league draft in the spring, and joined the team immediately following her college season’s end.

Over four seasons at Minnesota, the Elgin Park Secondary grad was among the top pitchers in the entire NCAA. In her senior season, which ended in late May, Groenewegen finished with a 31-4 win-loss record, an earned-run average of just 0.63 and 307 strikeouts in 211.2 innings pitched.

“I didn’t even get more than a week off, I just finished (at Minnesota), packed everything up and went to Ohio,” she explained, adding that she will return to the Minneapolis campus in the fall to complete the final year of classes she needs to graduate with a degree in sports management.

“I’m enjoying it, but it’s just a lot different. You’re playing against teams who have All-Americans one-through-nine in their lineup, so it’s incredibly competitive. It’s hard, and I haven’t had much success yet – whether that’s just because I’m a rookie or because these hitters are the best in the world, I’m not sure. It’s been very challenging for me as a pitcher, but I’m happy to be part of the league.”

Next week, Groenewegen’s two worlds will collide, as Team Canada travels to Ohio for a two-game exhibition series against the Racers that begins Monday.

And while Groenewegen didn’t know for whom she would suit up in the two-game showdown – Smith suggested to PAN earlier this month that she could potentially pitch one game for each team – she did expect it to be a strange situation.

“I feel like everyone’s been asking me about it, and I honestly don’t even know the answer,” she said.

“Either way, I’m going to have to pitch to teammates, which is going to be a weird experience.”

If balancing her pro and national-team duties has been a challenge for Groenewegen this summer, it’s a challenge she’ll likely have to get used to. Though she won’t play in the NCAA next year, she’ll balance her Akron commitments with a Team Canada schedule that includes the 2018 World Championships in Chiba, Japan.

And just a few years after that – the Olympics, now that softball is back on the docket for Tokyo 2020.

Groenewegen, however, is unfazed, and is, like most young players on the national team, looking forward to the chance to represent her country on the world’s biggest athletic stage. Groenewegen was just 10 years old when the sport was axed from the Games in 2005 – the vote to bump both softball and baseball was announced in the middle of that summer’s Canada Cup tournament.

“As an athlete, I think that has to be the coolest experience – to be an Olympian,” she said.

“And I think it’s definitely going to push a lot of young players to try to get to that level.”