British Columbia·In Depth

Field of dreams: Uganda's journey to the Softball World Championships in Surrey, B.C.

What do a B.C. softball coach, a 12-year-old from St. Louis and a team of upstart Ugandan softball players have in common? They share a vision and a dream of growing the game in the East African nation. And despite their doubters, that dream is playing out this week in Surrey at the 2016 Women's World Softball Championships.

African softball pioneers make their mark with the help of a B.C. coach and a precocious kid from St. Louis

Team Uganda at the Women's World Softball Championships in Surrey. (Cynthia Villarreal)

The Ugandan national anthem plays at the Women's World Softball Championships at Softball City in Surrey as Team Uganda prepares for a David versus Goliath match up against the powerhouse Canadian squad.

In terms of softball pedigree and geography, the teams are worlds apart.

In Uganda softball is still pretty much brand new, and in a country where female sports receive little support as it is, softball falls way behind soccer, cricket, handball and other sports in terms of popularity. Meanwhile, Canada is considered a power in the sport and softball is a mainstay for girls and women of all ages.

But below that seemingly divergent surface, there is a deep and indelible connection, specifically between the baseball-and-softball crazy Metro Vancouver region and the emergence of those sports in Uganda. 

The relationship goes back to 2011 when the Ugandan Little League team qualified for the World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. They were supposed to play the the Canadian champions from Langley but ended up on the outside looking in when their request for visas was denied by the U.S. State Department.

The Langley players and parents recognized the injustice of the situation and raised funds to travel to Uganda to play the team the following year. The Metro Vancouver softball community was inspired by that story and wanted to get on board.

Team Uganda gets set to take on the Canadians.

"When this World Championship became open, we decided that the most logical next step would be to form a national program and take the team from Uganda to Canada," said Kelowna native Joni Frei, the director of coaching for Softball B.C. and head coach for Team Uganda.

Uganda players tell doubters to 'Watch This'

But building a viable softball program in East Africa proved no easy task.

Back in Uganda, the fields are nothing like the pristine diamonds at softball city in Surrey. It's not unusual to find mostly dirt infields with small matted patches of grass and makeshift backstops that are erected with a bit of netting held up by wooden posts.

"Twenty years ago when a group of missionaries walked down to Uganda to introduce this game of baseball and softball, we never even imagined it would reach this far," said team captain Rosemary Jopaowitt who plays shortstop and pitches. 

"We used to play without shoes on. We had just a couple of gloves on the field, a few balls. When they hit the ball out of the field the game has to stop, go hunt for the ball and come back, continue the game, so it's such an amazing trip."

The practice field where Team Uganda's World Championship dreams were born. (Joni Frei)

With the lack of recognition for softball in Uganda there were many doubters. Some of the players' family and friends went so far as to warn them not to believe Coach Frei when she told them they could compete at the World Championships in Surrey.

"The parents couldn't believe it. They're like, 'that's a big joke, it will never happen,'" Jopaowitt said

"People had never owned passports. People had never gone out of the country. They had never had softball even played in the African championships ... They just saw this as, probably, a hoax."

But those doubts only fuelled their aspirations further, and gave way to the team's motto, "Watch This."

Rosemary Jopaowitt prepares for the World Championships in Kampala, Uganda. (Joni Frei)

"I said 'OK guys, I need you to start training hard because we're preparing for a world championship' and at the time the team was like, 'there's no way. This lady's got to be crazy ... We don't even have a team,'" said Frei.

"So I said ...'Our slogan is gonna be 'Watch This' because you're gonna start to believe that you're gonna show the world that you have something to watch."

"Those that never believed it, we asked them to 'Watch This' and now I believe they're watching it and cannot believe what is going on," said Jopaowitt.

12-year-old American softball player inspired by Ugandan story

So, they had an experienced coach, players who had raw athletic talent, a growing pedigree in the sport and a huge amount of enthusiasm, but in a country that traditionally has not valued women's athletics, how would they pay for training, equipment and transportation?

According to Jopaowitt, corporations were reticent to support the team because softball is so little known, and, like so many others, the government was doubtful about the value of the little known sport.

That's where outside help came in. Donors from Austria, the United States and Canada came up with more than $50,000 to get the team to the world tournament in Surrey.

Twelve-year-old bat girl Kyleigh Villarreal gets set to lead Team Uganda into the opening ceremonies of the Women's World Softball Championships in Surrey. (Cynthia Villarreal)

A precocious 12-year-old softball player from St. Louis, Missouri was one of the most enthusiastic Uganadan supporters. Kyleigh Villarreal met coach Joni Frei through a leadership course and was inspired by Uganda's story

She wrote a book and donated the $1,500 worth of proceeds to the team. And as if that wasn't enough, Kyleigh was so excited about the team's prospects that she asked to fly north from St. Louis to serve as the team's bat girl at this week's World Championship tournament.

"I love softball, and I don't know how I would live without softball, and I wanted them to feel the same way," said Villarreal.

"I'm really proud of Uganda. They're more than friends actually. They're more like my sisters."

The players shared a special and almost instantaneous connection with the youngster from St. Louis.

"I was waiting for that moment to finally meet her and give her a big hug for loving a team she had never seen," said Jopaowitt.

"Just the story about Uganda touched her heart, and I feel that it's something that is very impressive ... It was a teary moment when she was leaving. Everyone was crying."

Villarreal says she'll continue to stay in touch with the team and is writing a new book called, Watch This to raise more money for future training and tournaments.

Building an African softball super power

Back at Softball City, Team Uganda is overmatched against the far more experienced Canadian squad, but team captain Jopaowitt takes the 15-0 loss in stride.

"The first heart beats were of course for fear, but eventually I sucked it up and knew if somebody else could go and touch that ball I think I can do this," she said. 

"We had a double play on them. Who would ever imagine that Uganda would have a double play on Team Canada? So it's an amazing experience."

While this tournament is now in the books for Team Uganda, Rosemary has a clear vision for growing the sport at home. During the tournament, all of the players have become certified softball coaches and plan to pass on their skills and knowledge to the next generation. 

With softball expected to be brought back into the Olympics after this year's summer games, the team has its eye on Tokyo 2020. But more importantly, Rosemary Jopaowitt, Joni Frei and their team are focussed on the birth of another international softball super power, this time, hailing from the heart of East Africa.