USA Softball’s Recent Successes Stem From Past Struggles
Flash back five years ago, and the state of the USA Softball program looked quite different than it does today.
It was 2014, and the U.S. women's national team had just lost its second straight World Championship to rival Japan, who had defeated the Americans in the gold-medal game in softball's last appearance at the Summer Games in 2008. With the sport out of the Olympic program for 2012 and 2016, and Team USA's status as softball's superpower shaken, things seemed uncertain for USA Softball.
But those days were long ago, and today, the pulse of USA Softball has drastically changed. The U.S. squad, which has captured three of the four gold medals in softball's tenure at the Summer Games, will head into next summer's Tokyo Olympics as the favorite after a 2019 campaign that saw them go 21-4 in international play and capture all three titles—at the International Cup, Pan American Games and Japan Cup—that they competed for.
"If you take a look at what happened in 2012 and 2014 with a bunch of young (players), they got to the gold-medal game of the World Championship both years and lost and weren’t very happy about it," U.S. women's national team head coach Ken Eriksen told Softball America in a phone interview. "They were all young (then). They were under the age of 25 years old. We did not have Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott pitching, so the players had to learn how to adapt to a different style of the game than they were used to."
According to Eriksen, who has been at the helm of Team USA since 2011, that style includes a more fundamental approach to the game.
"What have they learned over the last five or six years? They’ve learned how to play fastpitch softball at a high level," Eriksen said. "They have learned to create more runs and push runners to the next base. That will pay off, just like it did for us (at the 2004 Olympics)."
Two-time Olympian Cat Osterman agrees with Eriksen. Osterman, who came out of retirement earlier this year to pursue another shot at the Olympics with Team USA, was a pitcher on the squad that captured gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the team that took home silver in Beijing in 2008.
After her first season back with the national team since 2010, Osterman recalled feeling a familiar sense of confidence surrounding Team USA at last week's Japan Cup.
"When we got to Japan, it was just a different feeling, at least from my perspective," Osterman told Softball America in a phone interview. "I had no doubt that we were going to show out during that tournament, and I thought we did. We played really well and we competed. We fought in every game and actually probably controlled the game the best in that last tournament."
Osterman, 36, went 5-2 with 64 strikeouts and a 0.74 ERA in 38 innings of work during international play this summer. She was an integral part of a five-pitcher staff that compiled a collective 0.99 ERA with 240 strikeouts in 162 innings on the international circuit.
"The easiest way to describe (the 2019 season) is that it was fun, but it was a fun challenge, to be honest," said Osterman, who had previously been retired from competitive pitching since 2015. "For myself, getting back in the circle, it wasn’t the easiest transition after having taken so much time off. By the end of the tournaments, though, I was feeling like myself, so I know it’s there. It’s just a matter of consistently being able to throw again."
With October's Olympic Trials now standing between Team USA and its preparations for Tokyo, the 18 national team players who represented the U.S. on the softball field this summer will now prepare to earn a spot on the 2020 squad. Thirty players from around the country were invited to Trials, but only 15 will make the Olympic team, while three alternate positions will also be filled.
"They understand that the decision to pick that team is out of their hands," Eriksen said about Trials, which will take place Oct. 1-6 at the USA Softball Hall of Fame Complex in Oklahoma City, Okla. "We’ve got a committee of seven, but they are just going to go out and play ball. I think that’s the main mentality. I want them to go out there and not press and just have fun."
Regardless of who dons the red, white and blue at the Olympics, Eriksen has reason to believe in his team's chances next summer.
"Since 2016, we haven’t lost a tournament that we’ve been in," Eriksen said. "It’s not just the three (titles) this summer, but it’s the three from last summer and the three from the summer before that. The culture has been about winning."