Softball has been left out of the Olympics for more than a decade, and the sport’s Olympic future beyond 2020 is uncertain. So you can’t blame Team USA for wanting to make the most of the present.
This week, USA Softball named the 15-player roster that will compete next summer. So what do we already know about the team headed to Tokyo?
This roster has its own history
If some fans need to be reintroduced to Team USA after its Olympic hiatus, it doesn’t mean the players are unfamiliar with each other. Rather than gathering dust, the national team began building toward 2020 even before the IOC finalized softball’s return in 2016.
Valerie Arioto and Michelle Moultrie were part of the past four world championship teams. Amanda Chidester was a part of the first three and reclaims her place on the roster. In all, nine players remain from the team that won a world title in 2016. That turning point ended a drought in which Japan won back-to-back titles. The U.S. also retained the title in 2018.
“It’s important for people to see, softball in general but especially the national team, it’s about so much more than talent,” outfielder Haylie McCleney said. “You could tell in 2016 and 2018 that the team, the core group of people, played well together. We knew each other, and we just fit. I think people sometimes expect our roster to be just an all-star roster, and that’s not really what it is.”
This is the first Olympics for second baseman Ali Aguilar and shortstop Delaney Spaulding, but it’s the third major event they will work together in the middle of the infield. It’s the third event for Aubree Munro behind the plate. It’s also the third time McCleney will patrol center field and Kelsey Stewart will be asked to do a bit of everything in the field and at the plate.
The 2018 world championship final was played against host Japan in front of more than 11,000 fans with the added pressure of an Olympic bid on the line.
It’s the Monica Abbott and Cat Osterman story
Whatever else happened while softball was in the Olympic wilderness, Team USA never fully managed to replace the pitching stars of the previous generation.
Keilani Ricketts, the pitcher who started the gold-medal game in last year’s world championship, is an Olympic alternate. Two more pitchers from that game, Kelley Barnhill and Danielle O’Toole, were not even part of last week’s tryout in Oklahoma City.
Of four American pitchers used in the 2016 world championship gold-medal game, only Ally Carda is on the Olympic roster after missing out on the 2018 gold-medal run.
The two most important things that happened to this team were Abbott’s decision to return to international competition, born both of her desire to wear the USA uniform again and honor a host country that has become her second home, and Osterman’s decision to come out of retirement to erase the sting of 2008. Their respective decisions made this the team to beat. Abbott is still the best in the world at 34, and Osterman is working to regain that form at 36.
Abbott and Osterman chased strikeout records and national titles in college at roughly the same time more than a decade ago. They competed for starts with Team USA in the stress-filled days of the sport’s Olympic exit. They split championships and awards in NPF, Abbott the lefty with the untouchable rise ball, and Osterman the southpaw with the knee-buckling spin.
“I think there is obviously a respect for the work we both put in and what we do on the field,” Osterman said. “But I don’t know that it’s helped in our career that we’ve been on the same team and opposing rivals at the same time. Sometimes that puts the question mark in on game day, are you friendly or do you stay in intense game mode. But it’s been fun to be on the same team again and in an atmosphere where we’re not really competing for anything.
For me personally, I’m not trying to be the ace of this team. I’m trying to do whatever it is [coach Ken Eriksen] thinks I need to do.”
And it’s telling that Abbott was among the more persistent voices cajoling Osterman out of retirement.
“Let’s do it on our own terms, the way that we want the story told,” Abbott said of her message. “Last time around we were put up against each other a lot because it is fun to talk about. We’re two very talented pitchers. But we’re two very different pitchers, and we’re very successful in different ways. What is better than being able to complement each other? That’s what I’m excited for this time around, is telling that story.”
Rachel Garcia is the heir apparent
If any player can emerge from 2020 with the same kind of star power that Abbott and Osterman carried out of their prior Olympic experience, it’s two-time reigning NCAA player of the year Rachel Garcia. And the U.S. roster suggests that the UCLA star is ready for that kind of moment.
In selecting Garcia and Carda ahead of Ricketts, Team USA placed a value on the dual-threat capabilities of the current and former Bruins, respectively. But by not selecting a third pure pitcher alongside Abbott and Osterman, the team also made clear it believes Garcia is ready for important innings right now.
“They call her the baby GOAT for a reason,” Osterman said of a nickname that pays homage to former UCLA and USA star Lisa Fernandez. “She’s a phenomenal pitcher who can hit, do a little bit of everything. That’s the youth component that this team needs, too. I think she’s ready for this experience. To be able to go all in and not have to balance USA and college and all of that, she can now fully commit to this and make a name for herself at the international level.”
Garcia confirmed that she intends to sit out the upcoming college season at UCLA, which would have been her fifth after sitting out her true freshman season with a knee injury.
This team will have to work for gold
Like Osterman, Canada’s Danielle Lawrie came out of retirement. One of the most feared pitchers in NCAA history and a 2008 Olympian, she’s worked well in combination with Sara Groenewegen and Jenna Caira. Those three combined to beat the U.S. once in the Pan-Am Games this summer.
Mexico has Dallas Escobedo, the former Arizona State ace currently among the league leaders in Japan, and O’Toole, who was on the U.S. world championship team last summer before switching her affiliation.
And then there is Japan’s Yukiko Ueno, the pitcher who beat the U.S. in the 2008 gold-medal game and continues to dominate batters at 37 years old. She nearly pulled off the unthinkable again last year, throwing every pitch in 16 2/3 innings across two games on the final day of the world championship before the U.S. pulled out a win in the 10th inning of the final.
“Like facing Justin Verlander,” McCleney said of the experience that is facing the hard thrower. “It’s facing a Cy Young, it’s facing a Roger Clemens. It’s facing the best of the best.”
Ueno suffered a broken jaw in a game in Japan earlier this year and didn’t play in the summer international competition. But Abbott, a fixture in Japan as well, said that Ueno marked her recent return to league play by throwing a no-hitter in her first full outing.