Canada’s Danielle Lawrie pitches during the first inning of Sunday’s game against Brazil at the Softball Americas Olympic Qualifier. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press photo)

‘Very proud’ moment for softball tournament organizer as Canada qualifies for Olympics

Canadian national softball team to play at 2020 Games in Tokyo after win Sunday in South Surrey

Better late than never.

Canada’s national women’s softball team – which includes a bevy of Lower Mainland talent, including former White Rock Renegade pitchers Sara Groenewegen and Danielle Lawrie, Cloverdale’s Holly Speers and Delta’s Kelsey Jenkins – punched its ticket to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo Sunday, with a 7-0 victory over Brazil in the final game of the 2019 Americas Softball Qualifier.

For Canada – ranked No. 3 in the world – the win was redemptive, and no doubt a relief, after the team narrowly lost a 2-1 game to Mexico the day before, which set up Sunday’s win-or-else situation. A victory Saturday would have pushed Canada through to the Olympics with ease, with one day remaining. Instead, they were stymied by Mexico pitcher Dallas Escobedo – an American with dual citizenship – who struck out seven while allowing just three hits.

A day later, Canada made sure lightning didn’t strike twice, scoring once early against Brazil, then opening the floodgates with a five-run third inning to put the game out of reach. The contest ended on account of the international mercy rule, while veteran catcher Kaleigh Rafter – one of just three remaining Team Canada members to have played at the 2008 Olympics – smashed a solo home run over the centre-field fence to end the game at 7-0 after five innings.

“This is a special group. Every one of these ladies made a commitment and I couldn’t be prouder of what we have achieved together – but we’re not done. There is a much bigger goal ahead, and we have a lot of hard work over the next year to prepare for Tokyo,” said Canada head coach Mark Smith.

• READ ALSO: Pitcher’s comeback highlights Canada Cup for longtime organizer

• READ ALSO: Team Canada’s softball team secure spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics

Canada finished fourth at the 2008 Games, and the sport – along with men’s baseball – has been off the Olympic docket ever since. Next year’s tournament is likely the last opportunity Rafter, 33, and some of the team’s veterans will have to play on that stage, considering the two diamond sports have already been axed from 2024 contention.

“I love this country, I love softball, I love playing for this team,” the catcher said after her game-ending home run.

“It’s been a part of me since I was a 19 year old at my first tryout. It’s everything, man. It’s kind of who I am right now.”

Lawrie and infielder Jenn Salling – both of whom left the national team only to come back in recent seasons –are the the other players left from the ‘08 squad. Lawrie – a former star at the University of Washington – came out of retirement last year for another shot at the Olympics.

Lawrie, who finished the game in the pitcher’s circle against Mexico, got the start against Brazil and was nearly unhittable, striking out eight in five innings. She credited Rafter – whom she called the team’s “emotional leader” – for much of the pitchers’ success not just at the qualifier, but throughout the summer.

“Kaleigh’s been consistent for us behind the dish and I can’t say enough about how much work she does behind the scenes, with scouting, going to games, telling the pitchers the scouting reports. She makes me look good,” Lawrie said.

The two runs given up by Canada were the first two the Canadians had allowed all tournament.

Smith took some ownership of Saturday’s loss, saying after the game that in hindsight, he may have made some coaching errors. Specifically, he let Groenewegen open the fifth inning instead of pulling her after four standout frames, as was his usual plan. Then, he went to reliever Jenna Caira, and not Lawrie, with the bases loaded and Canada badly in need of strikeouts.

“Jenna’s not a strike-out pitcher and when you bring her into a situation where you need a strikeout, it’s a bit of a flip of the coin because she has to rely so much on her off-speed pitch,” he said. “So that’s my fault for allowing it to get to the point where it could be a difference maker.”

Sunday’s victory, however, put the shine back on the tournament for the host country.

Tournament organizer Greg Timm – the longtime president of the White Rock Renegades association – said Lawrie’s performance Sunday was a special moment for him, considering her Renegade roots.

“There are so many things to talk about with this team, but first was the comeback of Danielle. She was a kid who played for us for a long time, and then went on to great things in the United States,” he said.

“She stepped away, but the Olympic flame drew her back. To see her out on that field, throwing a (one)-hitter in the final, was just fantastic. She looked like she did in her best days.”

Timm also raved about the play of another former Renegade pitcher, Groenewegen – who started Saturday’s game against Mexico – as well as Cloverdale’s Holly Speers.

But as proud he was of the team’s local players, Timm was quick to point out that every member of the team has come to feel like a local, considering the amount of time the national program has spent at Softball City. The team has finished first at the last two Canada Cup tournaments, the most recent of which was last July.

“Once we get to the national level, it doesn’t matter what association they used to play for. They feel like they’re all our players,” he said. “The whole team felt like our team. We weren’t less happy that Kaleigh Rafter hit that home run just because she’s from Ontario, I can tell you that.”

Timm was also quick to praise the tournament’s hundreds of volunteers and committee members, who were tasked this year with organizing two tournaments concurrently – the Olympic qualifier and the Canada Cup.

The hard work paid off with Rafter’s clinching home run, Timm said.

“We are very proud, and feel very accomplished. Fifteen months ago we were asked to do one thing, and that was help organize a tournament here in Canada, on home ground, to allow our Canadian team the opportunity to qualify for the Olympics,” he said, adding that he plans to be in Tokyo next summer to watch the team play.

“We can’t play the games for them, but we can set up the conditions in a way so they are comfortable, and we feel pretty happy here now that that has happened, and they’ve done it.”

– with files from Gemma Karstens-Smith/The Canadian Press

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