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by Bob Fromer

Vancouver, Canada: July 11 -- The tournament that used to be called the Canada Cup and is now (for obscure legal reasons) called the Scotiabank Canadian Open Fastpitch International Tournament, is a massive affair.

There are 77 teams this year -- a record number --playing in two senior and four junior divisions. There are almost 1200 athletes from eight different countries (though a majority from Canada) and 4000 people involved with the tournament, which is run by a team of 400 volunteers.

The competition is played on 11 diamonds at three different sites in or near the city of Surrey, about 45 minutes from Vancouver as the car drives. The idea of the tournament is to promote the future of fastpitch softball by bringing together some of the top women's teams in the world and as many youth teams as possible to watch, learn and draw inspiration from the elite players on show as well as by competing against each other.

Along with the GB Junior (Under-19) Women's Fastpitch Team, the other national teams here at senior or junior (Futures) level include the USA, Japan, Canada, Australia, Venezuela, Brasil and Peru. Apart from national teams, club or travel ball teams are here from China, Hawaii and Alaska as well as the nearer shores of California, Washington state and three Canadian provinces.

In short, this tournament is as big-time as it gets in world softball in both quality and quantity.

And it starts today in earnest for the GB Juniors, who looked jet-lagged and nervous in the first two warm-up games they played on Friday and Saturday. But on Sunday, the GB Team gave a fine display in a close and exciting game that they eventually lost 3-1 to top local team White Rock Renegades 94. The final score didn't matter; what mattered was that the level of softball they played will send the GB Juniors into the tournament with real hope that they can hold their own on this international stage.

Change of plan

GB was forced into a change of plan before the game even began, when starting pitcher Carling Hare came up with a stiff neck and Ellie Pamenter had to hastily warm up and pitch the whole game in her place. Ellie gave a fine performance, using her change-up to good effect and hitting her spots for most of the game, striking out four. Renegades 94, one of the top British Columbia youth teams at their age level, were held to just five hits, and two of them never left the infield.

After committing a fairly horrendous 11 errors in the previous two games, the GB defense this time was solid, with Amy Wells at shortstop making three difficult catches on wind-blown pop-ups, catcher Lauren Bromage throwing out a would-be base-stealer at second and probably another at third (the umpire thought otherwise) and Susie Hall, Saskia Johnston and Charlotte Wells catching whatever was reachable in the outfield.

On offense, GB matched the Renegades' hit total of five, led by Carling Hare, who was able to bat even though unable to pitch. Carling smashed a double and a triple from the DP slot, Lauren Bromage had two singles and Ellie Pamenter helped her own cause by driving in the lone GB run. But GB left six runners stranded and wasted a couple of good scoring chances, and this is an area that will need improvement if games are to be won.

Taking the lead

The first wasted chance came in the first inning, when Lauren Bromage led off the game with a single to right field and the Renegades mishandled Susie Hall's sacrifice bunt to give GB runners on first and second with no one out. But Renegades' hard-throwing starting pitcher Sarah Lazarowich strick out Ellie Pamenter and induced a ground ball from Nicole Ratel and a pop-up from Carling Hare to end the inning.

The game remained scoreless until the bottom of the third when GB, as in Saturday's game against the Richmond Islanders, took the lead.

With one out, Lauren Bromage once again singled to right, and when the ball got through right-fielder Caitie Younger, Lauren went all the way to third. She stayed there as Susie Hall struck out, but Ellie Pamenter bounced a two-out single up the middle to drive Lauren home.

Unfortunately, the lead didn't last long. The Renegades struck back in the top of the fourth to tie the game on a walk to Caitie Younger and a triple by clean-up hitter Emma Calling.

Falling behind

The 1-1 tie remained in place until the sixth inning when GB gave up the lead -- but it could have been so much worse. A single to left by Caitie Younger, a walk to Jessica Hume and a little infield squibber loaded the bases for White Rock with no one out. Ellie Pamenter dug deep, getting Quinn Dhalivat and Rachel Proctor on infield pop flies and Janelle Westgard on a fly ball to left field -- but that fly ball, with one out, drove home the run that put the Renegades ahead.

They scored again in the seventh on a triple and a wild pitch, so GB came up for their last at-bat in the bottom of the seventh innning trailing 3-1.

Near thing

What followed was one final wasted chance. Carling Hare smashed a triple to the right field corner to lead off the inning and Amy Trask drew her fourth walk in three games and took second on a passed ball, putting the tying runs on second and third. But this time White Rock pitcher Sarah Lazarowich dug deep, striking out Sara Robb and Saskia Johnston.

Amy Wells was GB's last hope and she hit a ground ball up the middle that would have scored the tying runs if it had got through to centre field. But White Rock shortstop Alam Pincaatt moved to her left, scooped up the ball and made the play to first to end the game.


The real thing

The International and Elite Women's Divisions began play on Saturday, but the Futures Gold Tournament starts today, with 27 teams in four pools. GB is in Pool C with one highly-rated team from California and five Canadian teams, and the California Aces 92 will be GB's first opponent at 1.00 pm local time at Softball City.

Then the games come thick and fast, with games again Regina Gold and Kelowna Heat on Tuesday, the Calgary Kodiaks and Fraser Valley Fusion 94 on Wednesday and Surrey Storm 93 on Thursday.

Then the top four teams from each pool will go forward to a double-elimination playoff round while the rest are guaranteed at least two more games in a consolation round. GB's target will be to make the playoffs, which would be a great accomplishment against some of the best youth softball teams in North America.

Now the real thing begins.