Team Canada head coach Mark Smith talks with players at last year’s Canadian Open.

Well-travelled Canadian squad ready for world championships

Canadian national women's softball team to open South Surrey tournament against Great Britain Friday night.

After a whirlwind summer tour that’s seen them play in California, Japan and Oklahoma City, members of Canada’s national women’s softball team are finally home.

And happy to be back on familiar soil, playing in front of a home crowd.

“We’ve been on the road for a month as of yesterday,” Canadian head coach Mark Smith told Peace Arch News Tuesday afternoon. “And we’ve played 29 games in 31 days – it’s been a lot of preparation, but it’s been well worth the effort.”

The team convened for its summer season June 11 in California, before heading for a tour of Japan that saw the team square off against the host country’s national development squad as well as teams from Japan’s professional circuit. From there, they headed to Oklahoma City for the World Cup of Softball, at which they placed fifth.

The team arrived in Surrey Monday, and now prepares for the summer’s main event – the 2016 Women’s World Championships, set to begin in South Surrey Friday. Canada opens their schedule Friday, 8:15 p.m. against Great Britain.

And though a spot on the podium didn’t pan out in Oklahoma – due in part to the tournament’s new playoff format, which teams agreed to as a way to limit games with world championships on the horizon – Smith said the last month has aptly prepared his troops for this week.

“Overall, we’re really happy with our preparation. We’ve played… against world-class competition, so you can’t have a much better preparation phase than we’ve had,” he said.

As is the case most years, Smith said the first two weeks of the team’s summer schedule – largely spent practising and playing club teams just outside of Los Angeles – were largely a feeling-out process, and teammates gelled and got back into their familiar roles.

“There’s a bit of a rhythm that forms as you go. You get some players back from school, and as much as they’ve all trained individually, the first two weeks are usually more about timing and getting comfortable in game situations again,” Smith said.

The tour of Japan was particularly useful, he added, as it allowed the coaching staff the opportunity to see where the team needed to improve.

“You’re playing against the best in the world, so any mistakes you make against teams like that tend to get magnified. We learned some good things.”

This summer’s squad features many of the same faces that competed in South Surrey at the 2015 Canadian Open Fastpitch International Championships – including former White Rock Renegade pitcher Sara Groenewegen and Surrey Storm alum Kyla Benz – so heading into the summer, Smith and his staff had a good read on his team’s strengths and weaknesses.

And a month’s worth of games has only solidified the coach’s belief that he has a well-rounded squad with plenty of depth at key positions.

“Our strength is that we’re pretty good at all of it. Our defence is pretty solid, our pitching is solid, and our hitting is fairly timely – and all those things together are what it’ll take for us to succeed,” he said.

“We’re not a team that has one specific strength that overwhelms the opposition… but if we go out there and do the things that we do well, we’ve got a chance against anybody.”

As multiple-time world champions – as well as winners of last week’s World Cup – Japan heads into worlds as the odds-on favourite, with the United States, Australia and Canada also in the podium mix.

But even as the focus is on the top squads, Smith said he’s cautioned his group against taking any opponent lightly, no matter their ranking.

“In tournaments like this, you learn that you can’t take anything for granted. Every single team is looking to improve their lot from the previous world championship, and because we go in as Pan-Am champions, a lot of teams – especially from our part of the world – use us as a measuring stick for how they’re progressing,” he said.

“You always focus on the teams that are right ahead of you, but you can’t afford to ignore the ones who are right behind you, either. Everyone is trying to make a move.”