Wartburg College proves tough going for GBFL

Sun 3 Jun 2018

On Friday evening 1 June, just before the last day of the Great Britain Fastpitch League season, and then again on Sunday 3 June, a team made up mostly of GBFL players took on a travelling team from Wartburg College, an NCAA Division III school from Iowa in the United States, in a series of three exhibition games at Farnham Park.

The Wartburg College Knights, under the leadership of Head Coach Jamie Mueller and her staff, were in London for a combined softball and sightseeing tour before moving on to Paris for more of the same.  The team had compiled a 17-17 record during their recent season in the Iowa Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

They turned out to be a lively, friendly and well-coached team, with several good pitchers and some players who hit the ball hard, and it was their edge in both pitching and catching that ultimately gave Wartburg three wins out of three over the weekend.

While the GBFL team, especially on Sunday, contained a number of experienced international players who were more than a match for the Wartburg pitchers, most of the GBFL pitchers were players who generally play other positions and most of their catchers were young and/or inexperienced.  Pitchers and catchers are the essential positions in fastpitch softball, and with no GB National Team pitchers and catchers currently in the UK, the GBFL team was always going to struggle.

Nevertheless, for all the players in the GBFL team, including a number of GB-based players on the GB Senior, Under-22 and Under-19 Women’s Teams, the games were a valuable opportunity to play against new, different and more challenging opposition that they normally get to see in the UK. 

For the younger GB players on the GBFL team in particular, the games presented them with the decision-making pressures and higher-level pitching they rarely have to cope with in the comfort zone of training sessions or GBFL play.

Game 1

The first game in the series, on Friday evening 1 June, was restricted to five innings by the late arrival of the Wartburg team.  The players, coaches and parents had been sightseeing in London earlier in the day and hadn’t reckoned on the nightmare that is Friday afternoon traffic in London and the Thames Valley corridor.

Silvia Garzon from the GBFL team The Mix was the starter for the local team, while Camille Colen was the first of three pitchers put out by the visitors.

Neither team scored in the first inning, but Wartburg put five runs on the board in the top of the second on three hits, including a triple by Kailee O’Brien, an error and the kind of poor decisions by a couple of GBFL infielders that coaches hope will be a learning experience.

The GBFL team mounted – or rather, was given – a threat of their own in the bottom of the second inning, as Silvia Garzon, Rachael Watkeys and Jessica Vernon all drew walks off Camille Colen, but no one was able to score.

That set the pattern for the rest of the game.

Wartburg added four more runs in the top of the third inning and one in the top of the fourth off Silvia Garzon, and a final two runs in the top of the fifth inning off GBFL reliever Sian Wigington, who gave up three hits but also registered two strikeouts.

The GBFL team only had two hits in the game, and both were triples. 

Laura Thompson slashed the ball to the fence in right centre field with one out in the bottom of the third inning, but remained on third as Holly Newell struck out and Glenys McGuire flew out to right.  Later, in the fifth inning, Laura drove another hard line drive to virtually the same spot, but Wartburg centre fielder Liz Roby Miklus made a tremendous diving catch for the final out of the game.

In the bottom of the fourth inning, Sian Wigington hit a long triple, also to right centre field and also with one out, off Wartburg reliever Allison Hiesland, but she too remained on third as Carys Lynch and Jessica Vernon followed with infield outs.

Carys Lynch, a young 15-year-old player from Arizona who was in the UK to visit her British family and to try out for the GB Under-16 programme, had come to watch the game rather than play, but was pressed into service as the GBFL team was only able to get nine players out on a Friday night.  Carys played four games the next day on the final Saturday of GBFL play, and two more games against Wartburg for the GBFL team on Sunday, and impressed the GB coaches.

The final score was Wartburg 12, GBFL 0.

Game 2

The GBFL team had a better turnout on Sunday 3 June, and presented Wartburg with much stronger opposition, especially in the first game of the day.

The GBFL roster for that game included BSF Hall of Fame outfielder Laura Thompson, current GB Women players Chiya Louie and Chloe Wigington, GB Under-22 player Sian Wigington, former Czech National Team players Michaela and Marketa Sulcova and former US Division 1 college player Megan Allen.

This was probably a lot more firepower than Wartburg was expecting after Friday’s game, and after the GBFL team had finished batting in the top of the fifth inning, they held an 8-1 lead.

GBFL scored a run in the top of the first inning when Laura Thompson led off the game by driving a double over the head of Wartburg left fielder Sarah Grabowski and scored on a single to right field by Michaela Sulcova.

Another GBFL run came in the top of the second inning when Jessica Vernon reached on an error, Carys Lynch walked, and Michaela Sulcova singled, this time to left field, to drive in the run.

Michaela Sulcova was also the GBFL pitcher for the game (she is normally an outfielder or third base player), and for a while, Wartburg had trouble adjusting to her slow but accurate deliveries.  However, the college team did manage a run in the bottom of the second inning, on a single by Brenna Gray, a stolen base, and a sharp single to right field by Hannah Onken to cut the GBFL lead to 2-1.

But then the GBFL team pulled away.  In the top of the fourth inning, Louisa Scott reached first on a single and stole second base.  Carys Lynch drew another walk, and then Laura Thompson’s infield single loaded the bases.  Walks to Michaela Sulcova and Chloe Wigington brought two runs home, still with only one out, to make the score 4-1.  But when no further runs crossed the plate, it felt like a missed opportunity.

There was no such problem in the top of the fifth inning, though, when the GBFL team scored four teams to take the score out to 8-1.  Jessica Vernon started the rally when she was hit by a pitch, Louisa Scott had another infield single, and Chiya Louie, batting for Carys Lynch, roped a double to the fence in left centre field to drive in both runs.  Michaela Sulcova’s third single of the game and a ground-out by Megan Allen eventually brought two more runners home.

But that was as good as it got for the GBFL team.  “No more playtime,” the Wartburg coach told her team.

And with Wartburg sending up their line-up for the third time in the bottom of the fifth inning, their players started to time the ball against Michaela Sulcova.

Wartburg had three straight hits and scored three runs in the fifth inning to cut the GBFL lead to 8-4, and followed that up with six runs on five hits, a walk and some errors and passed balls in the bottom of the sixth inning to move into a 10-8 lead.

Wartburg relief pitcher Maddy Rog, who had come in during GBFL’s rally in the fourth inning and shut down the GBFL bats thereafter, walked Chiya Louie and Michaela Sulcova in the top of the seventh inning to put the tying runs on base with only one out.

Megan Allen followed with a bloop into short right field that looked like it might fall for a hit until Wartburg’s Kailee O’Brien snagged it and completed the game-ending double play by throwing back to first base.

Game 3

After both teams had had some lunch from the suddenly very busy Home Plate Bar and Kitchen, GBFL and Wartburg played their final game.

Some of the GBFL players who had played in the morning game were not able to stay for the afternoon and that gave a chance for some of the younger players to face the college team.

But the big question was who could pitch for GBFL, and the short straw was drawn by Chiya Louie, who last pitched seriously, by her own reckoning, “many years ago”.

The fact that Chiya threw that bit harder than Michaela Sulcova, and just as accurately, made it easier for the Wartburg hitters to time her, and the inexperience of some of the younger players showed in a nightmare top of the first inning, when Wartburg scored nine runs on five hits and five GBFL errors.

The rest of the game, in fact, was nothing like as bad, with Wartburg scoring 11 more runs after that while the GBFL team scored seven.  But that still produced a final score of 20-7, and Chiya Louie, on the warmest day of the summer, had to throw 162 pitches in six innings before the game was called by agreement of the coaches.

Michelle Shaw, who has just aged out of the GB Under-16 team, had a fine game at second base for GBFL, snagging two hard-hit line drives, turning one of them into double play and making other good plays.

The visitor from Arizona, Carys Lynch, still eligible for the Under-16s, had two hits and a successful sacrifice bunt, and two RBIs playing against players much older and more experienced than she is.

Laura Thompson continued her torrid hitting, with two singles, a double and a walk and two RBIs of her own, and Michaela Sulcova, who didn’t start the game, had a double to right field and a single to left field.  Over the two games, Michaela was 5-for-5 plus two walks – a perfect offensive performance.

As GB National Team coaches Rachael Watkeys, Liz Knight, Jo Malisani and Robbie Robison told the team afterwards, these kinds of games allow players to learn and get better, and a lot of positives could be taken from all three games.

The Wartburg team also enjoyed the experience and the British hospitality, and were very complimentary about the facilities at Farnham Park. 

We can expect to see more US college teams touring here in future, to the benefit of our homegrown and aspiring players.

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