Recapping the Summer That Was for USA Softball

On a roster that boasts five players who are still in college, with the remainder of the team having graduated within the last two years, it is an understatement to say that this year’s Team USA squad was laden with youth. Although they lacked a significant amount of international softball experience, the Americans were still able to capture the World Cup of Softball championship, as well as the Italian Softball Week title. Despite these successes, Team Japan proved to be the American kryptonite this summer, however, as Team USA finished second to the Japanese in both the Canadian Open Fastpitch Invitational and the ISF Women’s World Championship. Take a look back at the summer that was for USA Softball.

  1. World Cup IX – Irvine, California (July 7-12)
Team USA captured the World Cup of Softball with a 5-2 win over Canada. (Courtesy of Team USA)

Team USA captured the World Cup of Softball with a 5-2 win over Canada. (Courtesy of USA Softball)

In the first major tournament of the summer, Team USA won the 2014 World Cup of Softball after defeating Canada 5-2 in the championship game. The red, white, and blue won the tournament for the seventh time in nine years, and went unbeaten with a perfect 7-0 record. In just her second summer with Team USA, Sara Nevins led the Americans in the pitching circle, finishing the week with 20 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings, and an ERA of 0.53. Veteran power-hitter Valerie Arioto belted five home runs with 12 RBI and a 1.400 slugging percentage during the tournament to lead the offensive charge for Team USA. Infielders Raven Chavanne and Lauren Gibson also had productive offensive showings at the tournament. The former college teammates at the University of Tennessee hit a combined .595, going 22-for-37 from the dish with 14 RBI.

  1. Canadian Open FP International – Surrey, B.C., Canada (July 15-21)
Amanda Chidester led the way for Team USA at the Canadian Open. (Courtesy of Team USA Softball)

Amanda Chidester led the Team USA offense at the Canadian Open. (Courtesy of USA Softball)

Team USA took second place at the Canadian Open Fastpitch International tournament after falling to Team Japan 7-0 in five innings. The Americans finished the week with an overall record of 9-3, and 3-2 in the playoff portion of the invitational. After falling to Team Canada 10-6 in the opening round of playoff action, Team USA bounced back with three straight routs over the NJCAA All-Stars, Team Mexico, and Team Canada. Amanda Chidester paced the American offense, batting .545 during the five games of playoff action, while Raven Chavanne hit a respectable.353 with 6 RBI.

  1. Italian Softball Week – Azzano, Italy (August 6-10)

Despite falling to Australia in the third game of play during Italian Softball week, Team USA bounced back to defeat the Aussies 6-2 in the tournament championship game. The Americans capped off the tournament with a 4-1 record. American outfielder Michelle Moultrie was named the tournament’s offensive champion and MVP after posting a .643 batting average, while Jolene Henderson was recognized as the pitching champion.

Sara Nevins was America's ace in 2014. (Courtesy of DennisAndersonPhotography.com)

Sara Nevins was America’s ace in 2014. (Courtesy of Dennis Anderson Photography)

  1. ISF Women’s World Championship – Haarlem, Netherlands (August 12-24)

Team USA capped off its season with a silver medal in international softball’s most prestigious tournament, the 14th annual ISF Women’s World Championship in Holland. USA finished with a tournament record of 9-2, after falling to Team Japan and its pitching ace Yukiko Ueno twice in the tournament, including a 4-1 loss in the title game. With the victory, Japan earned its second-straight and third-overall world title.

Team USA concluded the summer with an overall record of 28-6 in international play. Raven Chavanne was the top-hitting American in 2014, batting .464 for the summer. Sara Nevins turned in the best overall ERA on the USA pitching staff at 0.87.

 

Plourde and Prezioso Represent Atlantic 10, Exemplify Mid-Major Potential at Next Level

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts).

Sara Plourde starred for UMass in the pitching circle. (Courtesy of J. Anthony Roberts)

Former Atlantic 10 softball standouts Sara Plourde and Sarah Prezioso find themselves in the minority of players in the professional and international ranks. Following their stellar careers at UMass and Temple, respectively, it is not their skills that set them apart from the world’s best softball players, but rather the pedigree from which they come. Within the professional and international softball scene, where names like Cat Osterman, Keilani Ricketts, and Natasha Watley headline the competition, it is quite uncommon to find players from mid-major conferences in the mix.

Plourde, a 2012 graduate of UMass, is currently wrapping up her second consecutive summer as a member of Team Canada’s pitching staff. The recently-hired UTEP pitching coach believes that many players in mid-major conferences are unfairly categorized as less-skilled than those at big name schools.

“I full-heartedly believe there are many athletes who are overlooked simply because they don’t play in top conferences,” the three-time All-American hurler said. “There are so many talented players in the mid-major conferences, and only a select group has been given the opportunity to play at the next level.”

Plourde was drafted in 2012 by the Carolina Diamonds (now the Pennsylvania Rebellion) of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) league, following one of the best careers in Atlantic 10 softball history. She led the country in strikeouts each season from 2010-2012 and finished her collegiate career ranked eighth in total strikeouts in NCAA Division I softball history.

Along with Plourde, other recent Atlantic 10 graduates to play post-collegiate professional softball include Brandice Balschmiter (UMass, 2009), Jen Mineau (Fordham, 2012), Christina Sykora (Temple, 2012), Cyndil Matthew (UMass, 2013), and Sarah Prezioso (Temple, 2014).

Prezioso recently completed her rookie season in the NPF with the Pennsylvania Rebellion. The 2014 Temple graduate was a three-time All-Atlantic 10 honoree at shortstop, before playing her senior season in the AAC after Temple switched conferences.

Like Plourde, Prezioso also believes players from the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences don’t receive the respect they rightfully deserve from the softball community.

“Since the A10 isn’t considered a powerhouse conference, a lot of players, like me, have been overlooked,” said the first player in Temple softball history to collect 200 hits. “People think that [we] are only doing well because of the competition we play against.”

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts in July (Courtesy of Katie Roupe).

Sarah Prezioso smacking a game-winning double for the PA Rebellion off of Keilani Ricketts of the USSSA Pride in July. (Courtesy of Katie Roupe)

Prezioso thinks it is the exposure that players from “big time” schools get, and not their talent, which separates them from mid-major players.

“In the NPF there are all the big name players who everyone knows about because they are featured on television,” Prezioso said. “It is such a shame when you play the same level of Division 1 softball and can compete at a high-level in the NPF, but are thought of as a lesser player because of the school you went to and the conference you played in.”

At the center of the issue, Prezioso believes, is the difference in funding between major and mid-major programs.

“Because of how financially well-off some schools are, they have the money to give [scholarships] to high-caliber players and put into their facilities, uniforms, travel, and stadiums,” the former All-Region shortstop said. “Recruits look for these types of things when choosing their schools.”

Plourde firmly believes it will take more than just money and television exposure for the Atlantic 10 and other mid-major conferences to take the next step and gain similar respect as the PAC-12, SEC, and Big 12.

“Winning against the teams with higher rankings and harder schedules is what mid-major conferences need in order to gain the same respect as the powerhouse conferences,” Plourde said. “To be one of the best, you have to play and beat some of the best.”

The 2012 Atlantic 10 Pitcher and Player of the Year speaks from personal experience, after leading UMass to three Top-40 finishes in her four collegiate seasons. Plourde recalls her UMass team from 2009 as an example of mid-major success amongst the nation’s best. That season, UMass took the eventual National Champion Washington Huskies to a third and decisive 15-inning game in the NCAA Regionals, and finished ranked 24th in the country.

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013 (Courtesy of Team Canada).

Plourde (13) pitching to Lauren Chamberlain of Team USA in 2013. (Courtesy of Team Canada)

“That year, we had fantastic leadership, passion, and chemistry, and although we didn’t win [Regionals], we still sent a message that people have not forgotten today,” Plourde stated. “With the right ingredients, a mid-major school can definitely send a large shock of fear or intimidation across the country.”

A prime example of consistent mid-major softball success is the Louisiana-Lafayette program. The Rajin Cajuns, out of the Sun Belt Conference, have played in six Women’s College World Series since 1993 and are perennially ranked in the Top 25. ULL’s feats demonstrate what a mid-major program can accomplish with a successful formula and winning mentality.

Plourde believes a winning mentality develops from heated rivalries and in-conference battles that prepare players for competition against big name schools. She credits her experiences at UMass against Atlantic 10-rival Fordham as the preparation that was necessary to compete against top-flight teams and players, both in college and professionally.

“People often say about big moments or pressure situations, ‘act like you’ve been there before,’ and because of our A10 rivalry with Fordham, I can actually live that feeling of performing well in high-pressure situations,” Plourde recalled.

Despite being underestimated for having played at mid-major schools, both Plourde and Prezioso have helped legitimize Atlantic 10 softball, while proving their worth on the professional and international stages. Both women have similarly used the underdog role to help propel their professional careers and pave the way for future post-graduate softball success of other mid-major players.

“It takes a lot of work, but having the drive and passion to work hard to play amongst the best in the world, especially after initially being over-looked, can be really rewarding,” Plourde attested. “Is one game going to make mid-major teams and players emerge as dark-horses? No, probably not. But why not keep building on it? It is definitely not out of the question.”