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Nearly One Year Out From Olympics, USA Softball Eyes Gold

(Photo courtesy of USA Softball)

COLUMBUS, Ga. — In one year’s time, the United States women’s national softball team will head to a destination it has not known for more than a decade. That destination—the Olympic Games, which will take place in Tokyo in 2020—will serve as the battleground on which the U.S. will once again fight for a spot atop the Olympic podium.

With softball set to make its return to the Summer Games for the first time since 2008, Team USA is in the midst of a taxing 2019 schedule as part of its preparation for next summer. Included in that schedule has been five matchups to date with reigning–Olympic champion Japan, who upset the Americans in the gold-medal game at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

So far this summer, Japan has narrowly edged the Americans in three out of their five meetings, which have included three one-run games. On Sunday, however, the Americans bested the Japanese in the final of the 10-team International Cup in Georgia, which marked their most important win of the summer thus far. After trailing Japan by one run for most of the contest, Team USA stormed back in the title game’s sixth inning to take a 2–1 lead it would not relinquish.

“It was huge for our confidence,” said Cat Osterman, who won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2004 Olympics and a silver in 2008. “It was also huge to not let their (confidence) get too high.”

For the U.S., playing Japan this summer is about more than just bragging rights. It’s a way for the Americans to scout the team that is likely to be their toughest opponent at the 2020 Olympics.

“We want to see (Japan) as much as we can to get more data and understand how they play the game,” Team USA outfielder Haylie McCleney stated. “The more we see them, the more we feel like we can continue to combat what they do. It’s good for us to have that experience.”

While the U.S. and Japan—who are the only two teams that have qualified for Tokyo so far—are still currently the world’s top international softball powers, other national teams are knocking on the door. The programs from Canada, Australia and China all have significant Olympic experience, and will soon look to once again qualify for the Summer Games. The rest of the six-team Olympic field will be decided later this summer, while the final 15-player roster for the U.S.’s 2020 team will be determined in October.

Though just two members of the 2008 Olympic squad currently remain on Team USA, the players who wear the red, white and blue in 2019 have the same goal as those from U.S. national teams of the past.

“This team gets together on the field and we know we have one purpose and one mission,” Osterman said about Team USA’s unchanging goal to win. “The biggest thing we’re learning now is how (we all) work.”

With plenty of games left in this summer’s schedule—which includes an appearance at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, as well as a showing at the Japan Cup in Takasaki City, Japan—the Americans will have ample time to continue to figure each other out before they head off to Tokyo next summer.

“Slowly but surely, we’re getting better and better,” Team USA shortstop Delaney Spaulding said. “You definitely could tell throughout (the International Cup) that we just meshed and gelled, and we got on the same page. On gold-medal Sunday, it all came together. That’s ultimately what we want.”

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