OKLAHOMA CITY – The 2020 U.S. Olympic Softball Team is a roster 12 years in the making. It is one with immense diversity – from a 36-year-old with two Olympic medals to three players who are current student-athletes. It is one with 13 world champions. And it is one that, for a decade, had no guarantee of ever being named.
The 15 players, along with three alternates, who will play for Team USA when softball makes its return at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were named Sunday morning following a weeklong selection trials that included 29 players.
“This is a really special group,” said 2020 U.S. Olympic Softball Team head coach Ken Eriksen. “Its greatest strength is that you have good people. You have unselfish people. You have people who bought into a system that realize there’s only one captain of the ship and that everybody else is going to row along the lines of keeping the ship in the right direction as a collaborative effort.
“They’re empowered people, they speak very well, they’re intelligent in their softball IQ, they treat other people really well, they’re courteous. When you’re that type of person it makes it really easy to play the game. They challenge each other every day. They respect each other.”
The U.S. has been a dominant force in the sport since its Olympic debut in 1996, claiming three consecutive gold medals and one silver before the International Olympic Committee voted in 2005 to drop baseball and softball from the Olympic program following the Beijing 2008 Games. After a couple of failed attempts and two Olympic Games with neither sport, both were confirmed for the 2020 Olympic program in 2016, creating Olympic dreams for players who thought they might never have a chance to play at the Games – and reviving old ones.
Pitchers Monica Abbott, a 2008 Olympic silver medalist, and Cat Osterman, a 2004 Olympic gold and 2008 Olympic silver medalist, returned to the national team in 2018 and 2019 for the first time in eight and nine years, respectively, and now their Olympic returns have been confirmed.
“They were in the mindset of, yes I’m here and I’m still competing, there’s nothing guaranteed whatsoever; they never let their elite status in the softball world ever be a factor,” Eriksen said of Abbot and Osterman at this week’s trials. “They just never did. They checked their ego at the door on Monday and just continued to play ball.”
They were the youngest players in 2004 (Osterman, 22) and 2008 Abbott (2008, 22). In Tokyo, Osterman will be 37 and Abbott will turn 35 four days into the Games, as the two oldest on the team. Osterman will become the third-oldest U.S. Olympic softball player; Sheila Cornell-Douty and Dot Richardson were 38 at the Sydney 2000 Games.
The two Olympians had thought they ended their Olympic careers on a sour note – with a silver medal at the hands of Japan, after the program had previously settled for nothing but gold – and will now have a shot at redemption. The 2008 gold medalist and 2020 Olympic host country Japan remains Team USA’s biggest opponent, as the two have faced off for gold at the last seven world championships.
Ally Carda, a 2016 world champion, and Rachel Garcia, two-time reigning USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year for UCLA, join them as the pitchers on the 2020 squad.
The U.S. is the two-time reigning world champion – having claimed 11 of 16 titles in the event’s 53-year history – and the 2020 Olympic team includes 10 players who won gold at the 2018 worlds: pitchers Abbott and Garcia; infielders Ali Aguilar, Valerie Arioto, Delaney Spaulding and Kelsey Stewart; outfielders Haylie McCleney, Michelle Moultrie and Janie Reed; and catcher Aubree Munro.
Joining them are catchers Amanda Chidester, a 2016 world champion, and Dejah Mulipola, a senior at Arizona who won gold at the Pan American Games Lima 2019, plus outfielder Bubba Nickles, a senior at UCLA with Garcia and two-time junior world champion.
Catcher Taylor Edwards, infielder Hannah Flippen and pitcher Keilani Ricketts were selected as alternates.
The 15 players are all current or former Division I student-athletes, four conferences in Pac-12 (8), SEC (5), Big Ten (1) and Big 12 (1). Four competed – or still compete – for UCLA (Carda ‘15, Garcia ‘20, Nickles ‘20, Spaulding ‘17), while three played for Florida (Moultrie ‘12, Munro ‘16, Stewart ‘16). Abbott (Tennessee, 2007), Garcia (UCLA, 2018 and 2019) and Osterman (Texas, 2003, 2005 and 2006) have all been named USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year.
Seven current student-athletes competed at the selection trials.
“We had a lot of young players here at the trials, who are still in college: Dejah Mulipola from Arizona was here, Sis Bates from Washington, Bubba Nickles from UCLA, Rachel Garcia from UCLA, Megan Faraimo from UCLA, Alyssa Palomino-Cardoza from Arizona and Montana Fouts from University of Alabama. All those players who are still in college, I’m goose-bumping talking to you right now of how they were able to maintain the same level of play, and higher than some of the others, through the week,” Eriksen said. “I coached Garcia and Mulipola this past summer with the Pan Am team, and I think the future is very, very bright with that whole group of players.”
The team will be led by Eriksen, who has served as head coach of the women’s national team since 2011. He won 1991 Pan American Games silver as a player and 2004 Olympic gold as assistant coach, and has racked up more than 950 career wins as head coach at University of South Florida.
With the Olympic roster now finalized, Eriksen said he is excited for the players to work together on a daily basis and craft the “perfect practice” in training.
“If we do those type of things in practice, it makes you feel pretty good about putting them out on a ball field and letting them play,” he said. “The 15 players and three alternates who are going to do that are going to be very special. I think the softball community, let alone the U.S. sports fan community, is going to be pretty proud of this group.”
The win at last year’s world championships made the U.S. softball team the first country in the sport – and first of any U.S. team – to earn an Olympic quota.
Joining Team USA in Tokyo will be host country Japan, as well as Australia, Canada, Italy and Mexico, which will make its Olympic softball debut.
Australia, Canada, Japan and the U.S. will become the only nations to compete in all five Olympic softball tournaments. Australia and the U.S. have medaled at every one to date, while Japan has at the past three.
While most team sports will select their roster next spring – as close to the Games as possible – Eriksen was confident narrowing down the pool earlier would be best.
“We’ve gone through this a couple times in our program and found out that if you define the roles right now, it’s easier to understand what the plan is going forward,” he explained. “Whether you are in that 15 right now or if you are in an alternate position, you understand your role. The alternates understand that you’re just a turned ankle away or a pulled muscle away and you can be activated into that spot, so it’s really important to be transparent, make sure you define your roles; let’s make sure there are no questions because those create chaos. We want to make sure we’re point-blank on the same page right from the get-go.”