It’s a moment that still stings for U.S. women’s national softball team coach Ken Eriksen.
After winning the past seven world championships, the United States was knocked off by Japan 2-1 in a thrilling gold-medal game in 2012.
“Suicide squeeze, top of the 10th inning, runner at third, two out,” Eriksen said. “Do we still think about it? Yeah. It’s still ingrained in your memory.”
Two years removed from that eventual game-winning, extra-inning run, the Americans will have a chance at redemption to get that bitter taste of out of their mouths when the 14th Women's Softball World Championship begin Aug. 15 (Friday) in Haarlem, Netherlands.
“We really want to come back and prove them wrong and get a second chance at them,” said U.S. first baseman Valerie Arioto, who was a member of that 2012 silver-medal team.
“I would definitely say that there’s a revenge factor.”
The field at the world championships, which run through Aug. 24, will feature all the top softball teams in the world, including Australia and Canada, which are playing well right now. However, the focus will be on the U.S.-Japan rivalry.
The Japanese are 2-1 this season vs. the Americans. The U.S. team beat Japan 7-0 in the World Cup of Softball in Irvine, California, in early July, but Japan returned the favor two weeks later by beating the Americans twice by a combined scored of 16-2 in the Canadian Open Fastpitch Women’s International Championship in Surrey, British Columbia.
The Americans and Japanese have had an intense rivalry since the early 1990s. Eriksen boldly compared the back-and-forth battle between the two teams to the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankees rivalry.
“We play such different games, so we’re learning more about their style of softball and I think they’re learning more about our style of softball,” Arioto said. “I think at this point we see them so much, and even in the past years we’ve seen them a lot, it’s going to be who outsmarts who and which team is getting that little advantage here or there.”
Molding as a Team
The Americans, who have won nine world titles, are coming off a solid start to the season. They went undefeated and placed first in the World Cup of Softball and finished runner-up in the Canadian Open. The United States is 16-3 with eight shutouts.
“I think we’re doing a lot of things well and I think the things that we’re weak at right now we’re kind of working through,” said pitcher Jessica Moore, who is in her second season on the national team. “Every moment that we get to be on the field together, whether it’s practice or competition, we’re getting stronger and more confident.”
Eriksen, who has been the national coach since 2011, agrees his players are molding more as a team each day.
“I think we are getting a little bit comfortable right now with who we are,” Eriksen said. “We are a young team that doesn’t have a lot of world championship experience, we don’t have a lot of international experience.”
The average age for the players on the U.S. team is 23, which is younger than some of the other contenders in Haarlem, Eriksen noted. Besides being older and wiser, the professional players on the other teams are experienced at playing international softball.
“A lot of them have been playing the international game for a long time, whereas for a few of us it’s maybe only been a couple of years,” said Moore, who is 6-0 this season on the mound. “Every chance that we get only helps our team, and in the long run I think we’re going to do a lot of really good things.”
It can be a daunting task for young players to compete on the big stage of the world championships. Eriksen just reminds his athletes that the game is the same overseas — the bases are still 60 feet apart, and everyone is on an equal playing field.
Eriksen said the veterans on this year’s team who played in the 2012 world championships — Arioto, Amanda Chidester, Samantha Fischer, Jackie Traina, Lauren Gibson and Michelle Moultrie — are preparing the younger players for the environment. To help get ready, the U.S. team traveled to Azzano, Italy, for a week to practice, train and play some exhibition games during Italian Softball Week.
“I think we really have to rely on our pitching and our defense,” Eriksen said. “That’s probably the one thing youth will always be inconsistent on is how your pitching is and how your defense is. On offense, it’s instinctive, it’s reactionary, so I’m not worried about us that way.”
In the early part of the season, the U.S. team has outscored its opponents on average seven runs to 2.3 per game. The American pitchers surrendered just nine runs in seven games during the World Cup of Softball. If the pitchers can bring back that form, the U.S. squad will be tough to beat.
“We’ve seen so far that the games we’ve lost we’ve given (teams) opportunities to get more base runners on and given more outs than they should have,” said Arioto, who is hitting .441 with 10 home runs this season. “Our pitchers are getting us ground balls, and we need to just make the plays. Really the best offense is a good defense.”
Olympics on their Mind
When softball was pulled from the Olympic Games after the 2008 Games and passed up by the International Olympic Committee the past two times it was up for re-inclusion, Eriksen figured it would be tough for the sport to ever get brought back to the big stage. However, talk is growing to add softball for the 2020 Games. That excites the U.S. players.
“We’re fighting for the sport to get back in, so when you get to these types of events (like the world championships), you really want to make sure that you really put on a good show and enjoy it,” Moore said.
The IOC will make its final decision in December on which sports will be included in the 2020 Games.
“I’m not going to jinx anything,” Eriksen said. “I’m standing next to two trees that I’ve already knocked on preparing for that question that you were going to ask. There’s an excitement back in there and for some time it looked like the flame was out and there was no chance whatsoever. Right now, I’m cautiously optimistic about that.”
Eriksen isn’t worried too much about the Olympic Games at this point in the season. He has his mind focused solely on the world championship.
Is it gold or bust for the Americans?
“Absolutely,” Arioto said. “The USA is always expected to win and we have high expectations in ourselves. Anything less than gold, we would be disappointed.”
Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past seven seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.