CLEARWATER, Fla. -- If there was a heightened excitement Wednesday at the end of a selection camp practice at the Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex, it might be more than the urgency of 43 hopefuls vying for just 17 spots on this year’s USA Softball Women’s National Team.
For the first time in nine years, making this team is the first step toward representing the United States at the Olympic Games, with softball set to make a proud return at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“It’s a huge carrot,” national team coach Ken Eriksen said. “It’s an incentive not just for these guys, not just the young ladies 18 to 22 years old in college, but now at the 8-and-unders and the 10-and-unders that now say, ‘This is viable.’ The Olympics a big deal.
“Tennis has Wimbledon, golf has the Masters, but softball has the Olympics. It’s nice that it’s back on the docket.”
Eriksen was on the coaching staff when Team USA won gold in the 2004 Games, and he felt the sport’s frustration when it was taken out of the Olympic lineup after the 2008 Games. Today’s players, already proud simply to represent their country in any international competition, now have the biggest competition to motivate them over the next three-plus years.
“Growing up, that was the dream. You start watching Natasha Watley and Caitlin Lowe and Jennie Finch, and that was always the little-kid dream, and that got taken away,” said infielder Kelsey Stewart, who finished a stellar career at Florida last spring. “Now we’re back in the Olympics, and your little-kid dream is back again. You have those jitters and you just can’t wait.”
Making this year’s team is still a long way from playing in Tokyo, but that goal could keep the sport’s players in the game longer. USA Softball will have regular trips to Japan in coming years to promote the sport and the rivalry with Japan, which won the last Olympic gold medal in 2008, edging the United States, which had won the previous three.
“There’s a little more excitement at tryouts, a little more pressure, something we haven’t felt before, so you’re seeing a lot of great competition,” said Valerie Arioto, 27, a veteran and leader on the national team. “We haven’t had that goal of 2020 in the future, so it’s really exciting. Now people who aren’t even at the tryout, young girls, can dream of being in the 2020 Olympics or Olympics to come.”
After a weeklong camp in Clearwater, the team will meet again in June to prepare for qualifiers and other competitions. Team USA won last year’s WBSC Women’s World Championship in British Columbia and will work to defend that title at the 2018 tournament in Chiba, Japan, with the 2019 Pan American Games after that in Lima, Peru.
“It’s been a fun week — there’s so much talent here,” said outfielder Haylie McCleney, who finished her college career at Alabama last spring. “When I’m not playing, I’m looking out at the field and I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ The talent level here is so fun to watch.”
McCleney, a two-time member of Team USA, said even the most experienced players make an effort to reach out to newcomers, remembering how nerve-wracking it was their first national tryout.
“My first time here, I grew up idolizing Michelle Moultrie. I wanted to be her,” McCleney said. “Then all the sudden we were in the outfield together. I’m starstruck. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s great and you can’t really put it into words unless you experience it firsthand.”
There will be key parts of that 2020 Olympic team who haven’t even registered on the national scene yet, but others, from the youngest on the current roster to the oldest, know they can start making their case to wear the red, white and blue in Tokyo by playing and playing well now.
It won’t get bigger than the Olympic Games, but the buildup starts this year, with great excitement for all involved.
“We’ve had world championships in the Netherlands, and we got to go to Italy on that trip, too. It was a blast,” McCleney said. “There’s always a bull’s-eye when you’re wearing those three letters across your chest. Everyone’s here with the same common goal of wanting to be on the team, wanting to carry this USA Softball program where it needs to go to be ready for 2020.
“Ultimately, that is the goal, in 2020 to be a gold medalist.”