Pitch perfect: Canadian women's softball team determined to get back where they belong

While the Canadian women's softball team is physically on the field in Lima, their minds are squarely in Surrey, B.C., where later this month they'll get their shot at getting back to the Olympic Games for the first time since 2008. For the team's veterans, the second chance has been more than a decade in the making and encouraged them to come out of retirement.

Sara Groenewegen throws perfect game in Lima, but is focused on getting to Tokyo in 2020

Canadian starting pitcher Sara Groenewegen is congratulated after finishing an inning during her team's 8-0 win over Venezuela in Lima, Peru on Monday. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

LIMA, Peru — The Canadian women's softball team continued their perfect start at the Pan American Games tournament on Monday with a perfect game from pitcher Sara Groenewegen.

Following up a 3-1 win over Puerto Rico on Sunday, Canada beat Venezuela 8-0 in a mercy-shortened five innings where Groenewegen threw 10 strikeouts and didn't allow a single base-runner.

"Just throwing my first international game is different in itself but getting a perfect game is a pretty huge honour," the 24-year-old from White Rock, B.C. says. "It was funny, in the middle of the game one of my coaches was like 'why don't you give someone else a try, c'mon, share the ball,' and I was like 'nah, I'm good.'"

Canada's Sara Groenewegen delivers a pitch during Monday's preliminary game. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

While the team may physically be on the field at the Villa Maria del Triunfo sports complex, their minds are squarely in Surrey, B.C., where later this month they'll get their shot at getting back to the Olympic Games for the first time since 2008.

Groenewegen says the Pan Am tourney is just preparation for the main event.

"The most important tournament of the summer is at the end of August," she says.

An 'intelligence gathering' mission

Canadian head coach Mark Smith says the Pan Ams offer a great chance at preparation for the Olympic qualifying tournament since four of the five teams Canada will play here in Lima will also be in B.C.

"I think it's a bit of a dress rehearsal for the qualifier," Smith says. "It's a chance to see the competition a couple of weeks ahead. It's a chance for us to build our game plans and strategies in terms of how we want to play and execute against those particular teams.

"If nothing else, it'll make us that much more prepared for the qualifier."

Canada's Jennifer Gilbert watches the ball fly after hitting a double in Lima, Peru on Monday. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

Canadian infielder Jenn Salling agrees — the team is here to win, but they're also looking to use the event as an intelligence gathering mission.

"The Pan Ams are important to us and the goal is to win gold, of course, but it's also time for us to continue to get better as a group and individually," the Port Coquitlam, B.C., native says. "It's also an opportunity for us to get information on our [qualifying tournament] opponents."

This Pan Am tourney is just the latest warm-up for a team hungry to get back to the Olympics. The fact that they haven't been back since 2008 wasn't due to any missteps or not being good enough — the sport disappeared from the programme after the Beijing Games, and its return was a major factor for veterans like pitcher Danielle Lawrie to come out of retirement.

"I can't stand here and say that I would be here if softball wasn't in the Olympics, because I wouldn't," Lawrie says. "It's too difficult with the family and the kids. When it came back into the Olympics, it was [about] wanting a different Olympic experience and wanting to be a different type of leader.

Canada's Victoria Hayward, right, avoids the tag from Venezuela's Kimberly Caicedo Franco as she steals second. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"I was 21 at the '08 Olympics and there were things I wish I could've done differently. We were so close to winning a medal and we didn't and that was crappy."

Lawrie, of Langley, B.C., started her tournament by pitching a gem on Sunday — she struck out 12 batters, allowed only two hits, with the only blemish being a lead-off home run in the 3-1 victory.

No regrets

It's been almost 12 years since Canada missed their chance for an Olympic medal. Salling was on that team and says she's back for one last shot at what they missed out on in Beijing.

"The biggest thing for me going into this journey of qualifying and making the roster, it's that I have no regrets," Salling says. "The last thing that I want is that when I retire is to have any sort of regrets... any should've, would've, could've when I look back.

Canada's Jenn Salling looks on from the dugout. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"We came fourth in 2008, we were right there for a bronze medal, but we can win gold. The strides our program has made over the years is absolutely incredible. We have a huge shot to win the gold, more than we ever have before."

Salling and Lawrie feel their chances are so great to rewrite history because of the intense pre-qualifying schedule they've gone through, which includes the Lima Games as well as the national team joining a U.S. professional fastpitch league.

Smith says the pro league offers a level of opposition that would normally be unattainable for his club.

Canada's Joanne Lye (left) celebrates with Emma Entzminger after scoring a run against Venezuela. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

"Historically we would have to put together our own international schedule or series of exhibition games against various countries and often times you couldn't schedule as many with the better countries as you'd like without a tremendous expense attached to it," Smith says. "You go into these games knowing that if you don't play near your best, there's a strong probability that you're gonna come out on the wrong side of it.

"It forces our players to raise their level of play on a consistent basis."

Lawrie says the amount of preparation her team is going through is proof that they are "all-in."

"I got a lot on the line here," she says. "I've got two kids, I've got a husband, I work... the fact that I am doing this means that I'm all in," she says. "I know everyone who is wearing the uniform [has] worked extremely hard for this opportunity, probably the hardest our team has ever had to work."

Team Canada celebrates after defeating Venezuela on Monday. (Carlos Osorio for CBC Sports)

Lawrie is happy to be with her team playing for a Pan Am medal, but she says the real prize is still to come.

"At the end of the day, I'm so excited to [be in] Peru," Lawrie says. "Yes, we want to win [Pan Am gold] but if you don't win the qualifier, you don't get to go to the Olympics."

The Canadians have three more preliminary matches at the Pan Am tourney, and take the field next on Tuesday when they face the U.S. The semifinals begin on Thursday and a champion will be crowned on Saturday.

The all-important WBSC Americas Softball Qualification tournament begins in Surrey, B.C., on Aug. 25.


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