Photo by Don Fennell
Optimism can be a great equalizer. Sometimes, it even yields unexpected results.
When the Richmond Islanders entered this season without two of their top pitchers, one leaving for an opportunity to throw in Europe and another to a local A-Division team, it represented a potentially significant setback. The loss of a perennial all-star shortstop to studies overseas was a further test for the local senior women’s B-Division team.
But one thing that can’t be measured has proven to be skipper Al Groff’s greatest ally. The Islanders’ strong mettle, coupled with simple talent, has lifted the team into contention for provincials honours last weekend at Steveston-London Park.
“The (provincial tournament will be a) test of what we have become, from the beginning of May to now,” Groff said. “We’ve gotten over injuries, acquired new skills and had strong hitting from all the players.”
Inspired simply by a desire to play hard and have fun doing so, the Islanders have succeeded at a game they love, explained Groff, who noted most play on one or more slo-pitch teams as well.
Buoyed by strong pitching from rookie senior player Kylie Brind, the always-steady Sydney Stanley and cool, but measured veteran Julia Badock, the Islanders earned a 12-7 record in the New Westminster Senior Women’s Fastball Association. The return to softball by former Islanders Brittany Corea and Amanda Odorico, after five and two years respectively, helped provide a smooth transition for rookie shortstop Brooklyn Eusanio and middle infielder Courtney Reynolds, while returning position players Alex Lowe, Frances Ramsay, Janessa Murao, Kaeli Alexander, Katie Sherlock, Shayla Kaplan, Sydney Jeffers, Tatiana Ikeda and Victoria Groffensured a consistent lineup each game.
Following an early round-robin loss that put them in the loser’s bracket, the Islanders, with an average age of just 22.5 years, battled all the way back to come within a victory of advancing to at least the third-place game. Coach Groff hopes the experience will serve the Islanders well as they look to medal next year.
“We learned than anybody can beat anybody in the B Division, and with all our players having decided they’re coming back next year that (experience) means a lot,” he said.
Larry Strohan managed a second Islanders team
that will also compete in the B Division at the 2017 provincial tournament. He
said while the regular season was a tough go, after a number of last year’s
players moved on, he’s excited by the future prospects for the current group.
“We started with a small core of players and slowly progressed from there,” he said. “The determination and love of the game of this small core was the driving force behind it. From the onset they developed a never-say-die attitude. And the future looks bright as many are looking forward to returning next season.”
That love of the game is exemplified by the players’ eagerness to be out on the field on a summer evening, enjoying each other’s company.
“Coming to the ball park and having fun, playing hard and being competitive with a positive outlook, these are our core values,” Strohan said. “Staying close to our team philosophy definitely aided us in surviving the regular season so that we are able now to move forward and compete at the provincials.”
More important, however, to Strohan is encouraging players back to the sport. One player returned after a seven-year absence, and another after four years away from the game. Two more returned after two years away, and another pair after sitting out last season. During the course of the season, a number of others came out for at least a few games but were unable to commit full-time because of previous commitments.
“Along with my co-coach Barry Riva and our core group of players, (we) did a great job reaching out to past players and former teammates inviting them back to the sport,” Strohan says. “It seems you lose a number of players because of post-secondary education, jobs and travel. (But) for some they return sooner and for others later, but they do return and from what I have noticed they come back with a rekindled passion. You can see it on their faces when they make a good defensive play or have a good hit. Win or lose I would declare this season a success. Softball is a game you can play for life. That’s the beauty of the sport.”
The second Islander team also lost an early round-robin game, but battled back to win one of two games on the loser’s side of the draw.
Steveston Athletics, the third Richmond-based
club in the B Division of the tournament, lost out to Groff’s Islanders in
their final game Sunday. But with that game, the club achieved one of its goals
which was to still be playing on the last day.
Mike McWilliam, co-coach of the A’s along with Kevin Lee, said it was a season of steady improvement for a group of a women playing together for the first time.
The A’s game was based on strong fundamentals—sacrifice bunting, proper technique and defensive mechanics. But like the Islanders coaches, McWilliam says a priority for the A’s is to ensure the women enjoy playing the sport. He says the coaching staff has stressed improving individual skills and playing as a team, and a strong showing at provincials “reflected how well we have improved.”