Sun shines on GB Challenge Tournament

Mon 16 Apr 2018


By Bob Fromer

After weeks of rain and murk, the sun finally came out for the GB Challenge Tournament on Saturday 14 April at Farnham Park – the self-professed “favourite tournament of the year” for GB Slowpitch Team Head Coach Stephen Patterson.

The GB Challenge is the annual event where the 40 or so players in the GB Slowpitch Team player pool are invited to come together and are divided into three teams – Red, White and Blue – for a day of competition designed to let the players show the coaches what they can do.  It’s an important part of the selection process for ESF, WBSC and other tournaments that will happen later in the year.

A fourth team is always asked to help out, and this year the “Challenger” team was made up mainly of players from the KKs plus a few friends.  A four-team round-robin is then played, followed by semi-finals and a final.

It’s a testing day, with the players exhorted to smile and have fun but at the same time show maximum intensity, all the while knowing that someone is probably making a mental or physical note of every good thing they do – and every mistake they make.


Improvisation

This year, for the 30 GB squad players who were able to make the event, things were even more testing than usual, and it was a minor miracle that the complete tournament got played.

At the end of the week leading up to the GB Challenge, Team Manager Kellie Whitaker had been told that the softball pitches at Farnham Park were water-logged and unplayable, and the two combination baseball/softball diamonds had been booked for most of the day for a youth baseball tournament.

With GB players preparing to travel from around the country, there was a frantic search for an alternative venue before an arrangement was made with someone from the Farnham Park Rugby Club to use grass areas adjacent to the rugby pitch behind the football clubhouse.

So that’s where the GB Challenge started out on Saturday morning, on soft, wet grass fields that slowed down every ground ball – except for the ones that skidded on the slick surface – and of course no outfield fences.

But after a couple of games, some different rugby club officials turned up and basically said “Get off our area – now!”  So it looked like the only alternative was to use a fairly ropey bit of grass behind the original baseball diamond, and play only one game at a time rather than two.

For most of this time, however, a warm spring sun had been out, working its magic on the BSUK diamonds, the youth baseball tournament got down to just one pitch, and other solutions began to look possible.  And so, by the end of the day, the remaining GB Challenge games had been played on:

  • The softball field on the original baseball diamond -- with a completely soaked outfield and churned up infield cut-outs that were more like a beach than a field.
     
  • The middle softball diamond -- but with home plate set up in the outfield to keep infielders away from the swamp around second base.
     
  • The far softball diamond, but with home plate moved forward and to the right to avoid a major pond between the original home plate and the backstop.
     

It was no wonder that the players sometimes seemed a bit distracted and, as Stephen Patterson noted, intensity levels occasionally dropped.  But all credit to the players and team management for getting through the day under the most challenging conditions and still managing to produce quite a lot of good softball.


Getting started​

Before the first games were played, Stephen Patterson addressed the GB players.

“Today is about you guys,” Stephen said.  “This is your opportunity to show off, and for the new players to show you belong, that you have the grit and the ability to do something here.

“A number of things have been a challenge, not least the weather.  But we get up and fight and we overcome these things.

“This is a training session,” Stephen added, “but there’s no better training session than a competitive one.  And we may challenge you during the day, putting you in different situations, and you need to be prepared. 

“We’re here to have fun,” he concluded, “but above all we’re here to compete!”

With that, the games began, with David Lee organising the GB Blues, Kellie Whitaker the GB Whites and Luis Arrevillagas the GB Reds, while Stephen Patterson was free to roam and observe.


Evenly matched​

The GB coaches had selected the Red, White and Blue teams to be as evenly matched as possible, and by the end of the round-robin, it was clear they had done the job well.

While none of the games between the GB squads or a GB squad and the Challengers was particularly close, with an average margin of around seven runs, the standings at the end of the round-robin showed each of the GB squads with a 2-1 record and a run differential of nine!

Based on runs scored, however, the final rankings were:

GB Blue
GB White
GB Red
Challengers

And so Blue played the Challengers and Red played White in the semi-finals.

“This is when it gets serious,” Stephen Patterson told the players.  “This is the money end of the tournament.”


Crossroads​

The GB Challenge Tournament has been an annual event for many years, but this one took place in an unusual context, with the GB Slowpitch programme at something of a crossroads.

Last year, for the first time since European Co-ed Slowpitch Championships began in 1998, GB failed to win the gold medal, losing to Germany in the final.  GB had dominated the tournament up to that point, and the final could easily be dismissed as one of those games that good teams occasionally have, where nothing seems to work and the underdog has its day.  But could it also be seen as the beginning of the end of GB hegemony in European slowpitch?  We won’t really begin to have an answer to this question until the next European Championship in 2019.

Meanwhile, GB finished fourth at the WBSC Slowpitch World Cup in Florida last November, and since the competition was revived on an annual basis in 2014, GB hasn’t managed to win it, finishing second twice and fourth twice.  There is a chance that over the next two or three years, this tournament will move from a World Cup with no nationality requirements to a full-blown World Championship played by national teams (which the WBSC, perversely, will call a World Cup), and the stakes will be raised accordingly.  How will the GB Slowpitch Team fare in this environment?

There is also a new ESF Men’s Slowpitch Championship in Europe this year, to be played in June in the Czech Republic, and selections for the GB Men’s Slowpitch Team will be announced shortly.

Where will GB rank at this format in Europe, in a tournament where countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Germany have entered teams alongside GB and Ireland?

This is the backdrop against which the GB Slowpitch coaches and other interested observers will have been judging the talent on display at this year’s GB Challenge.


The Semi-Finals

The GB Slowpitch programme owes a lot of gratitude to the “Challenger” team that makes up the numbers at the GB Challenge Tournament each year -- in this case the KKs and their friends -- but the last thing the GB coaches want, with all due respect, is to see the Challengers in the final!

That’s almost what they got however, as the GB Blues struggled all the way and only prevailed by a score of 12-11 on a walk-off hit in the final inning.

The other semi-final pitted GB Red against GB White, and this was close most of the way, with the Reds holding a slender 7-6 lead after four innings.

But the Red team then scored eight runs in the top of the fifth on nine hits, including home runs by Steve Hazard and George Lucas, and at one point in the inning the Reds rattled off six consecutive hits.

The Whites staged a two-out rally in the bottom of the fifth, scoring four runs on an error, base hits by Kevin Quincey and Anna Witcher, a walk to Ben Tomlin and a single by Kelvin Harrison.  But it wasn’t enough, and the Reds eventually eased through to the final by a score of 15-11.


The Final

Stephen Patterson brought the final to an end after five innings, with the GB Reds leading the GB Blues by 13-6. 

Both teams scored runs in each of the first three innings, but the Reds scored more heavily and built up an 11-5 lead.  The Reds had 14 hits over those three innings, and though none of them cleared the fence, the barrage of singles and the odd double, plus a triple by Amy Rice, did the job.

In fact, the Reds would have scored even more if not for outstanding defensive plays by Joe Grantham and Aaron Thomas in the first inning – both diving stops in the infield that led to outs – and a fine catch by Bruce Saunders in the second inning on David Grey’s long fly ball to left field.

After the final ended, Stephen Patterson brought the players together one last time, and offered thanks to all of them and the coaches for improvising their way through a difficult day, to Kellie Whitaker for getting the event together so successfully and to Chris Moon and Ian Tomlin, who umpired throughout the tournament.

“The intensity went up when we got to the playoffs,” Stephen told the players, “and it had to.  We saw the walk-off hit that got the Blues past KKs in one semi-final, and we saw White fight back against Red in the other.  We have to get better at developing a killer instinct in games like these, and we all have the talent to do that.

“All but one of the games played today was won by a team scoring 12 runs or more,” Stephen noted, “and that’s what it takes.  The Red team won because they had more of those streaks, where hitting becomes contagious.  Today was about learning -- learning to get stronger, to get a winning mindset.  And it was fun during the day watching people smile, because you always play better when you’re not feeling stressed.

“Now we all go in different directions,” Stephen added, “and you’ll be playing for different teams during the season.  But I’ll still be watching you in those games as a GB player.”


Postscript

It had been a long and demanding day for the GB Slowpitch squad – but it wasn’t the end, because the team was hosting its annual fundraising tournament, the GB Slowpitch Open, on Sunday, and the fields still had to be prepared and assignments sorted out before most of the players could leave.

The rest of the year will include the European Men’s Slowpitch Championship, a GB Development Team playing at the World Series in September and the WBSC World Slowpitch Cup in November, as well as GB squads competing at other domestic tournaments over the summer.

Slowpitch development in the rest of Europe is progressing quickly, with a record 16 teams competing in the European Slowpitch Cup this year, the strong entry to the new European Men’s Championship and the fact that five European national slowpitch teams will compete in this year’s Softball World Series.

All of this, plus the possibility of a WBSC Co-ed Slowpitch World Championship, means that the GB Slowpitch programme is likely to face exciting challenges in the near future.


The players

The GB Slowpitch squad players who competed in the GB Challenge Tournament were as follows.  Some additional players or GB coaches were drafted in to make up numbers as needed.

REDS
Mark Bowman
David Grey
Kris Hadwin
Steve Hazard
Sherry Kenyon
George Lucas
Christa Reed-Thomas
Amy Rice
Kim Yeates

WHITES
Danny Gunn
Kelvin Harrison
Kim Hendry
Ruth Macintosh
Holly Newell
Dan Patterson
Kevin Quincey
Claudine Snape
Robbie Studholm
Ben Tomlin
Anna Whitcher

BLUES
Lucy Barker
George Bartlett
Vicky Chapman
Kat Golik
Joe Grantham
Natasha Humphris
Mike MacDowell
Bruce Saunders
Aaron Thomas
Matt Tomlin

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