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by Jenny Fromer

Dupnitsa, Bulgaria: July 23 -- Finals Day at the European Slowpitch Championships. The top four teams were going to battle their way through the Page Playoff until a winner was crowned, and Germany and the Czech Republic were going to play for fifth place.

The odds were on a GB-Slovenia final, since both teams had finished the round-robin stage with 9-1 records, far ahead of everyone else. And that's what eventually occurred, but not quite the way the GB Slowpitch Team had planned it.

Here's how the day went -- a day that ended with the GB Slowpitch Team winning its eighth straight European Championship -- but doing it the hard way.

Game 1: Bulgaria (4th) v Ireland (3rd)

Arriving for the final day of play, the first two teams scheduled were going through their now established pre-game rituals. The Bulgarian players (doubling as tournament organisers) could be seen doing jobs all over the venue, and the large contingent of Irish supporters were busy hanging flags and singing songs.

The game was very close through the first five-and-a-half innings. When the Irish came in to bat in the bottom of the sixth, Bulgaria had a 5-4 lead. But Emma Kilbride led off the inning with a walk and Colum Lavery singled to right field. The next batter, Cliodhna Sharp, flew out to left for the first out. The next six batters then singled up the middle and the inning only ended when Cliodhna grounded out, thus making the first and last outs of the inning.

Amidst the activity in that inning there was a delay when Bulgaria spotted an illegal substitution by the Irish, but they left it too late to appeal. Ireland put on seven runs in the bottom of the sixth, and that was the game, as the Bulgarians were quickly out in order in the top of the seventh.

They may have lost the game, but the Bulgarians came fourth in their first European Championship, which was a major accomplishment, and they made a lot of fans along the way. They were a pleasure to watch, and they came a long way in the course of the week. Clearly new to slowpitch, they struggled to hit for the first few days, but were really driving the ball by the end of the week.

Game 2: Slovenia (2nd) v GB (1st)

As the two teams had finished the group stage with identical records and each had beaten the other, this game drew a lot of interest in the stands.

GB opted for a 12-player batting line-up, as Head Coach Jeremy Bedford later explained, in order to give all the players carrying injuries a run-out. The latest casualty had been Ben March, who was rested much of yesterday because of an arm strain.

GB scored in the first and second innings to lead 3-0, but in the top of the third, the Slovenians really found their bats. All ten batters came to the plate to score six runs. Third base player Lucy Binding had a great defensive inning, making the first and third outs. The first out was a line drive catch, and for the third out of the inning, Lucy held onto the ball  to make the tag on Slovenia's huge first baseman Igor Kep, despite literally bouncing off him.

GB pulled two runs back in the bottom of the third inning, but continued to struggle to string hits together.

In the fourth inning Steve Hazard, sidelined for the past two days with a wrist injury, entered the game at second base.

Neither side scored in the fourth, but in the fifth Slovenia again came out of the gates hard and scored four more runs to lead 10-5. Again, GB pulled two runs back in the bottom of the inning, thanks to Dan Spinks putting his fourth home run over the fence. But Slovenia answered back in spades. Pitcher Grega Valancic also put a two-run home run a long way beyond the fence and Slovenia added two more for good measure to bring the score to 14-7 – a result that stood.

The Slovenians had a stand-out batting game, particularly their catcher, Tina Trobec, who went 4-for-4. Slovenia had done it again.

Steve Hazard had one at-bat in the game, in the sixth inning, and smashed the ball to left-centre for a double, which was a definite silver lining for GB.

Game 3: Czech Republic (6th) v Germany (5th)

Next up was the game for fifth place.

From the start, the Czech pitcher struggled with his control, walking three batters in the first inning, but limiting the damage to one run.

The Germans had a great defensive game, but neither team were scoring many runs until the Germans had a big inning in the fourth and scored five times. Three came from Wolfgang Walther's massive shot over the fence.

Both sides added a few more runs later in the game and going into the bottom of the seventh inning the score was 10-4 to Germany. The game ended with a fantastic catch while falling backwards by German left centre fielder Stefanie Weisse. With Germany securing the fifth spot, another  team had performed above expectations and affected the established rankings.

Game 4: GB (Loser Game 2) v Ireland (Winner Game 1)

The Irish had been watching the 1 v 2 game closely from the stands, and were likely not best pleased to discover they would have to go through GB to reach the final.

Prior to the start of the game, GB Head Coach Jeremy Bedford was calm and said emphatically that no one was panicking and that the entire team was focused and full of passion for the game ahead.

The Irish batted first, and when all ten batters came to the plate to score five runs, the GB team would have been forgiven for being a little less calm. Instead, they came hard out of the blocks to score four runs themselves, and the inning was only closed out with a diving catch by Colum Lavery on Danny Gunn's line drive to left field.

Neither team scored again until  GB tied the score with a run in the bottom of the fourth.

In the bottom of the fifth, GB had one of their signature massive innings, which began and ended with singles from Steph Jardine -- although, on the second single, she slipped and was tagged after rounding the bag. Eight runs scored to effectively kill off the game, although both sides added a pair of additional runs.

GB's came from a massive over-the-fence home run from Steve Hazard – clearly indicating he was back. While they had taken the harder route, GB were through to the final.

FINAL: GB @ Slovenia

This was the fourth match-up for these two teams, and going in, it was advantage Slovenia.

Jeremy Bedford opted to start the final with exactly the same line-up that had just left the field after the win against Ireland.

Neither side scored in the first inning and both were retired in order, including a stunning 1-6-3 double play that was at first not given, but the call was reversed by a second umpire, prompting chants of “Mafia, Mafia” from the watching Bulgarians.

For this game, the GB team dispensed with their slow build to the big inning and from the top of the second GB hitters were crushing the ball and finding all the gaps. Slovenia, in contrast, seemed quickly out of the game and were not taking good swings at pitches. The few times they hit the ball well they were foiled by an oustanding defensive play, such as Ben March leaping to take a line drive headed over shortstop.

Everyone in the GB line-up hit, but special mention should go to Vicky Chapman, who went 4-for-4, including a ground-rule double that hopped the fence. After a slow start in the morning, Vicky crushed the ball in her last two games. Ruth Macintosh went 3-for-4 with a triple, Steve Hazard went 3-for-4 and Danny Gunn was 3-for-3 with a sacrifice fly. In short, it was a sublime performance, and a result that never seemed in doubt from the top of the second inning onward.

GB were worthy winners for the eighth time in as many European Championships.


Some final mentions in closing....

A shout is due to all the GB staff who worked together like a well-oiled and professional machine. Steve Patterson in particular was a tireless Assistant Coach, and could be heard from the sidelines almost as much as Steph Jardine. And a mention is also due to the Bulgarian host club, who worked tirelessly to stage an excellent event.

In the final analysis, what was most gratifying about these Championships was to see the development and significant improvement of countries like Slovenia, Bulgaria and Germany. This bodes well for future Europeans and means that the level of competition is becoming much more even.


Player awards

As play ended and it started to rain, all that was left was the Closing Ceremony and the bestowing of player awards:

Best Female Infielder:
Tina -Kristina Trobec (Slovenia)

Best Male Infielder:
Dr Karim Abu-Omar (Germany)

Best Female Outfielder:
Aneta Caithamlova (Czech Republic)

Best Male Outfielder:
Ziga Bauer (Slovenia)

Best Female Pitcher:
Gergana Handjiyska (Bulgaria)

Best Male Pitcher:
Roger Grooms (Great Britain)

Best Female Batter:
Emily Clifford (Great Britain)

Best Male Batter:
Dan Spinks (Great Britain)

Female MVP:
Emma Kilbride (Ireland)

Male MVP:
Grega Valancic (Slovenia)


Final Standings

1. Great Britain
2. Slovenia
3. Ireland
4. Bulgaria
5. Germany
6. Czech Republic


Previous stories from the European Slowpitch Championships can be found both on the Home Page and in the News column on this website.