GB Women get ready for Euros opener

Mon 17 Jun 2019

By Bob Fromer

Ostrava, Czech Republic: 28 June – There were two more training sessions today for the GB Women’s Fastpitch Team, one on either side of the Czech-Polish border, as the opening game of the European Women’s Championship on Sunday draws ever closer.

The GB Team flew from the Netherlands on Tuesday to this little-known corner of Eastern Europe, and held training sessions in smoldering heat on Wednesday, on a less warm but sunny day on Thursday and today, when the temperature hovered around 24 degrees and there was even a chill in the air when the sun went behind a cloud. 

The heat wave currently gripping Western Europe will move into this region on Sunday and Monday, with temperatures of 35 degrees expected, but the rest of next week will be in the mid-20s, ideal weather for softball.

The European Women’s Championship is the most important tournament on the ESF calendar, and 23 countries have entered this time from every corner of Europe (plus Israel and Turkey from, technically, Asia). 

But the real issue at the tournament is which teams will claim the top six places and move on to the Europe/Africa Olympic Qualifier scheduled for 23-27 July in the Netherlands.  Making sure they gain one of those places is the main mission of what looks like a relaxed, confident and powerful GB team.


Scattered venues

The central venue for the European Championship will be the newly-refurbished two diamonds at the Arrows Baseball and Softball Club in Ostrava, a city that was formerly a centre for heavy industry in Soviet times and a byword for smoke and grime, though those days are long past.  However, games will also take place in three smaller towns, one in the Czech Republic and two over the border in Poland.

In these towns, small local baseball/softball clubs are putting in tremendous efforts to upgrade their fields and facilities and make them fit for a European Championship, and pride in what they’ve accomplished shows through.

The GB Team has so far trained at the impressive main pitch in Ostrava, where a large new spectator stand still has workmen applying final touches, and at homelier diamonds in the small Polish towns of Rybnik and Zory, around 45 minutes away.

Here, the diamonds will not be state-of-the-art, and in Zory the background will be dominated by an 11-story classic Eastern European tower block directly behind left field, where interested residents can get a perfect free view from their balconies.  But conditions will be the same for both teams and local spectators will be thrilled at the chance to see some of the top softball teams in Europe come to town.

The GB Women will complete their pre-tournament odyssey tomorrow (Saturday) when they hold a final training session in the fourth tournament venue, the Czech town of Frydek-Mistek, where GB will return on Wednesday morning for the final game of their opening round-robin group against Switzerland.


Key game

For the GB Women, the key early game will be the first one they play, and one of the very first games in the tournament – a Pool D encounter with Greece at 9.00 on Sunday morning on the second field in Ostrava.  Based on rankings and recent performances, the Greeks are likely to pose the biggest challenge to GB in Pool D, where the team that wins the pool will have a distinctly easier second-round schedule and an excellent chance of finishing in the top six.  

Only two teams from each of the first-round pools will go through to Championship playoffs and retain a chance to get to the Olympic Qualifier.  The second round will reduce those eight teams to six and determine the European teams that will play in the Qualifier.  After that, it will be about medals.

In the last European Championship in 2017 in Italy, GB beat Greece on their way to winning the bronze medal, but the game was close at 3-1 and GB scored the winning runs late in the contest.


Talent

This year’s GB Women’s Team may be the strongest we have ever produced, with more pitching depth and more power than any previous edition – but that’s all on paper at this point, and will need to be reproduced on the field.

The main concentration in GB’s preparations, both before the team convened in the Netherlands on 22 June and ever since, has been on hitting.  For some years now, GB Women’s Teams have played close games against the best teams in Europe and many of the best in the world, but have not scored enough runs to win.  A string of shut-outs at the beginning of the World Championship in Japan last year still rankles, although the offense found its feet in the second half of the tournament.

Now the offense will have to perform from the start, and early indications are that the hard work players have put in over the past few months at long distance with new Hitting Coach Linda Derk has borne fruit.

But line drives and home runs in training – even against GB’s strong pitching staff – are one thing and the same results in tournament play will be another.

Having said those cautionary words, however, the 2019 GB Women’s Team appears to have an excellent blend of speed, power and contact hitting that will worry the coaching staff of every team they play.

What’s probably worrying the GB coaching staff at the moment is what their strongest line-up would be.  While some players here are obvious starters, more positions than usual may be up for grabs, even at this late stage, based on performances in training.  And unfortunately, for a variety of unforeseen reasons, GB has been able to schedule all the training sessions they wanted in Ostrava and the surrounding towns but has not been able to find any opponents for scrimmage games. 

Nevertheless, this has been a happy group in training, with the players enjoying and supporting each other and obviously relishing the challenges to come.  Training sessions have been purposeful, and players have also had chances to relax and recover so they can go into the game on Sunday morning against Greece in the best possible shape and frame of mind.

At that point, theory will become reality and the GB Women will embark on a month-long adventure that they hope will end with their passage booked for Tokyo 2020.


First-round games

GB’s first round games are:

Sunday 30 June – 9.00 am
Greece at Ostrava 2

Monday 1 July – 10.00 am
Germany in Zory

Monday 1 July – 4.15 pm
Croatia at Ostrava 1

Tuesday 2 July – 9.30 am
Switzerland at Frydek-Mistek

Results as they happen can be followed on the ESF website here: http://competition.europeansoftball.org/2019/ostrava/schedule.php.

Reports on all GB games at the European Women’s Championship will be posted on this website daily.

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