By MURRAY EVANS
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — It’s a pivotal time in the history of their sport and the members of the U.S. team at the eighth World Cup of Softball are aware of that.
The World Cup, which will begin Thursday at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium, also will include teams from Canada, Australia, Japan and Puerto Rico. It will be one of the last major international softball events before the International Olympic Committee meets in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from Sept. 7-10.
During that meeting, either wrestling, squash or softball/baseball will be added to the program for the 2020 Olympics. So is this week an opportunity to make a positive impression on the IOC voters?
“I think we’re always trying to show the world that softball is a great sport and deserves to be back in the Olympics,” said U.S. infielder Lauren Chamberlain, who starred for Oklahoma during the Sooners’ run to the NCAA title this spring. “We’re just staying positive about the whole thing. There are a ton of little girls out there who want the same thing.”
Fellow infielder Lauren Gibson, the Southeastern Conference player of the year at Tennessee, echoed that sentiment.
“It would be really good to get it back,” said Gibson, who’s starting her third year on the U.S. squad. “Obviously, we’ve all dreamed about being in the Olympics. That was one of our goals when we were little. We’re just going to out and work hard and have fun and hopefully showcase softball so that people will want to put it back into the Olympics. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Softball made its Olympic debut in 1996 in Atlanta. The U.S. won the gold medal that year, then again in 2000 in Sydney and in 2004 in Athens. Japan beat the U.S. for the gold in 2008 in Beijing, after the IOC voted in July 2005 to drop softball (and baseball) from the Olympics.
Ever since, efforts have been ongoing to have the IOC reconsider its decision. Most recently, softball and baseball international federations have paired together, figuring their sports stood a better chance of jointly regaining Olympic status instead of competing against each other.
One by-product of the absence of softball from the Olympics is that international events like the World Cup - first held in 2005 - have gained an added importance in the sport. After finishing second behind Japan in 2005, the U.S. has won every World Cup played since.
The Americans have posted a 39-4 record in World Cup play, losing only to Canada and Japan in 2005 and Canada in 2010 and 2011. But while the U.S. has the world’s most consistent national team, it isn’t invincible. In their last meeting during the 2012 World Championships, Japan beat the U.S. 2-1 in 10 innings for the title.
“It’s always gold or bust for us,” said Valerie Arioto, a former California star also entering her third year on the U.S. squad. “We’re always looking at the gold medal. Last year was a little disappointing, but I think the day after (the loss), we were ready to compete again and ready to get back at it and get that gold medal. Nothing is going to stop us. We’re a young team and that might work to our advantage. . We have that drive and competitive nature we need to get the gold medal.”
Along with Japan and the U.S., Australia and Canada (third and fourth, respectively, at the World Championships) have capable squads. The five teams will play a round-robin tournament from Wednesday through early Sunday afternoon. After that, the fourth- and fifth-place teams will play, then that winner will play the third-place squad, followed by the top two finishers playing for the championship.
The U.S. team will be without college player of the year Keilani Ricketts. The ace pitcher and slugger, who led Oklahoma to the NCAA title, left the national squad a week ago. Ricketts played for the U.S. team the last two summers.
The U.S. will play Canada on Thursday, Australia on Friday, Japan on Saturday and Puerto Rico on Sunday. U.S. coach Ken Eriksen deflected questions whether the tournament will be a showcase for softball heading into the IOC vote or if his team would like to gain a measure of revenge against Japan after last year’s loss.
“We cannot worry about that kind of stuff,” said Eriksen, the coach at South Florida. “We need to continue to get better today. Let the people handle what they’ve got to handle. My job is right here and that’s what we’re going to try to do.
“If we play the game the right way, the long-term benefits are going to be really, really good for us.”
But there’s no doubting his players understand the significance of the opportunity. Aimee Creger, who played at Mustang High School in suburban Oklahoma City, watched U.S. Olympic teams while growing up and dreamed of the chance to someday do what they did. The current University of Tulsa pitcher hopes to be a part of the generation that helps return softball to the Olympics.
“I really think us winning will help,” Creger said. “I really want them to put it in the Olympics, just for the younger generations, and even for us. I want them to be able to have a goal to look forward to. If it’s not there, some girls might not work for it. They might just quit at the college level, when you can go so much further.”