Countries are placed on the draw board as they’re announced by the World Baseball Softball Confederation in Switzerland. (Nick Greenizan photo)

Countries are placed on the draw board as they’re announced by the World Baseball Softball Confederation in Switzerland. (Nick Greenizan photo)

Canadian softball players ready for ‘biggest tournament of our entire lives’

Former White Rock Renegade Sara Groenewegen aims to lead Canada to 2020 Olympics

In the moments after the draw for the 2019 Americas Olympic softball qualifier was announced Monday, the tournament – scheduled for South Surrey in August – felt nearer than ever for all involved.

“This makes it feel real now,” Greg Timm, chair of the organizing committee, stated matter-of-factly just before the teams were announced live from World Baseball Softball Confederation headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland.

And though the Olympics are, in fact, one step closer – two teams from Surrey’s qualifying tournament will advance to the 2020 Games in Tokyo – it wasn’t long ago that being able to participate in them felt almost unthinkable for one longtime member of Canada’s national team.

In the final days of last July’s Canada Cup tournament, Sara Groenewegen was hospitalized with what was soon diagnosed as Legionnaires’ disease. She was put in a medically induced coma for 10 days, and afterwards spent time in the intensive-care unit as she was slowly taken off her medications, one by one.

As a result, she missed the rest of Team Canada’s summer schedule – including world championships in Japan, and her ball-playing future was in question.

• READ ALSO: Surrey chosen as Canadian bid city for Olympic softball qualifier

Legionnaires’ disease is a form of bacterial pneumonia. And while most who contract it make a full recovery, it is a long, slow process. A few weeks after being hospitalized last summer, Groenewegen released a statement saying, “I was congratulated for standing for 10 seconds on my own the other day and that’s what it really hit me… Life can be so humbling.”

“I couldn’t even walk the whole month of August,” she told Peace Arch News Monday, during a media event at Softball City, where the qualifier draw was broadcast live.

“It was quite the scare… but I recovered extremely quick. I know a lot of people probably weren’t anticipating that I’d be back this summer, but I wasn’t going to let anything stop me from coming back and playing softball.”

Now returned to full health – “I’m 100 per cent,” she said – the 24-year-old pitcher and former White Rock Renegades star is training daily with a small group of Vancouver-area teammates in preparation for the summer’s busy schedule, which will again include the Canada Cup. As well, Team Canada will compete, for the first time, in the National Pro Fastpitch league, which is based out of the U.S.

Canada will be joined on the six-team circuit by national squads from Mexico and Australia.

Despite the looming pressure of the August qualifying tournament – which is scheduled for Aug. 25-Sept. 1 – Groenewegen said she and her teammates are doing their best to find a balance between staying focused on the task at hand and looking ahead.

“We do think it’s business as usual, but you can’t be naive to the fact that the Olympics are on the table,” she said.

“Whether it’s players coming back who haven’t been around the last couple years, or the way you prepare – it’s all more extensive than ever. It’s like a college program and lifestyle right now. You live, eat and breathe softball.”

Monday’s 12-team draw was determined through a lottery-ball system, and Canada will play in Group A alongside Puerto Rico, Bahamas, Cuba, Guatemala and Argentina. In Group B, Mexico and Venezuela are the top two seeds, followed by Brazil, Peru, British Virgin Islands and the Dominican Republic.

Canada, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela were pre-slotted into the top spots of their respective pools, and were not part of the lottery system. Timm said the two sides of the draw ended up being fairly even, with the top two unranked teams – Cuba and the Dominican Republic – ending up in opposite groups, thus avoiding a “Group of Death” scenario that often befalls similarly styled events in other sports such as soccer.

The tournament format will be different than what many North American sports fans are used to, Timm added Monday. After teams play each other in the pool round, the top three teams in each group will move on to a ‘Super Round’ playoff. But rather than play each ‘Super Round’ team, teams will only play against the three teams in the opposite pool, and pool-round results from earlier in the week will count a second time in the ‘Super Round’ rather than have two teams square off a second time.

“It just means that every single game is extremely meaningful. One hiccup, one bad game, and it’ll cost you,” Timm said. “Or on the other side, if a team overachieves in a game, it gives them hope. It forces you to play hard every single game. There’s no games where you can just coast.”

Of the 12 teams, Canada is highest ranked in world rankings, and on Monday Timm called them “the best team we’ve ever had in Canada.”

Home-field advantage will certainly aid in the Canadians’ quest for an Olympic berth, too, Groenewegen said, pointing to Team Canada’s gold-medal win at the Toronto-hosted Pan-Am Games in 2015 as proof.

“We’re more than excited to get to play at Softball City, and play on our home soil for the biggest tournament of our entire lives,” she said.

”We’re ready for it – we’re not scared of the pressure.”

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Team Canada’s Sara Groenewegen throws a pitch during the 2017 Canada Cup. (Gord Goble photo)

Team Canada’s Sara Groenewegen throws a pitch during the 2017 Canada Cup. (Gord Goble photo)