By JOE MCFARLAND
Adversity quickly became an opportunity in disguise for Nicole Luchanski.
The Edmonton native is back on top of the Canadian women’s baseball world, as she was recently named the Women’s National Team MVP for the second time in her career.
Featured image photo credit: World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC)
According to Baseball Canada, Luchanski had her best summer with the program, leading the club in hitting during the Canada/USA Development Series in Washington, “providing an equally stellar performance on the defensive side of the ball.”
Luchanski first won the award in 2015. She felt like she was on a roll.
“But then in 2016, it was okay,” Luchanski told Alberta Dugout Stories. “But I didn’t quite play up to my standards and I just really wanted to turn it around.
“So to be able to come back in 2017 and get back to the very top, it was so rewarding to see all that hard work pay off,” she added.
When asked what changed between 2016 and 2017, she cites a debrief meeting players have with brass after every World Cup.
“One of the things they said was ‘you didn’t look as strong this year, you didn’t look as fast, you didn’t jump as high, you didn’t really hit the ball as hard,'” Luchanski said. “They asked if I changed anything with my training and I didn’t.”
So the 5-foot-3 right-hander made it a goal to train harder when she went home in the off-season and told her trainer she needed to get stronger.
“That’s the awesome thing about having these opportunities is that he’s the expert and he saw the weaknesses and was able to tweak the program,” Luchanski said. “We just hit it harder in the gym and hit it smarter.”
The results paid off for Luchanski, who was also named the Baseball Alberta Women’s Open Player of the Year, an honour she also achieved in 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014.
“After this year’s debrief, they said ‘you just really took it to heart,'” the second baseman recalled. She was told the ball was jumping off her bat, she looked faster and that it looked like I took their advice.”
Getting the national award, Luchanski felt completely rewarded.
“I try not to get too ahead of myself and really celebrate successes too long before moving on to the next thing,” she said. “But this is one I have to sit back and go ‘ahhh, good, I did it!'”
WORLD CUP DREAMS
While 2017 was a year to remember for Luchanski, she’s also quick to point out how strong the Canadian contingent was.
“It was a great year, there were a lot of girls there,” she said. “There were 31 of us in Washington, we kind of had two squads.”
Being the savvy veteran, the 27-year-old used the tournament to not only highlight her skills, but to also be a leader.
“It was really good to be able to play to our best and sort of lead and try to really engage with the girls and talk to all of the young ones while leading by example at the same time,” continued Luchanski, who won the 2010 Jimmy Rattlesnake Award for “on-field accomplishments as well as team spirit and leadership.”
The seven-game series in Washington saw Canada and the U.S. split with records of 3-3-1. Whenever she was on the field, Luchanski was making an impact, including a pair of 2-for-4 days and a 3-for-4 game.
The team’s performance sets the stage for a big 2018, highlighted by the 8th Women’s Baseball World Cup, which will be played in Florida in August. It will be the first time the event is heading state-side, a fact not lost on Luchanski.
“It’s sweet,” she said. “Any time you can have a tournament in the U.S., it’s awesome because that’s where all the press and money and focus is.”
That tournament is near and dear to Luchanski’s heart.
Edmonton played host to the very first tournament back in 2004, and she remembers going as a 14-year-old.
Just two years later, the University of Alberta product was selected to join the national team, and has now won three medals in five World Cup appearances, including a bronze when the championship returned to her home city in 2012, and a silver in 2016.
She’s hoping that momentum for herself and the sport continue.
“This is a huge year now with World Cup and we have a lot of good talent coming up,” Luchanski said, citing the squad that went to Washington. “Not only to keep my own spot but this could be a year we break it open with a really deep team.”
GROWING THE GAME
Continued success on the international stage has Luchanski hopeful for the future of the game.
When asked as a child if she wanted to play softball or baseball, she took the unconventional route.
“I just wanted to play baseball,” Luchanski said. “It’s not that I didn’t like softball, I just liked what I was already doing, so I didn’t want to leave.”
She knew she would have to play with the boys at a number of levels in Edmonton’s Confederation Park, as well as the Northeast Zone Baseball and the South Edmonton Elite Baseball Association Midget AAA. In fact, she still plays with the Cubs of the Sunburst Baseball League.
But the key for her is letting girls know they shouldn’t be afraid to pick up a baseball. And with the sport’s resurgence in Canada, thanks largely to the popularity of the Toronto Blue Jays, she’s hoping they are never discouraged to try.
“It’s just so sad to think of a little girl loving baseball, just watching the Jays, yet somehow doesn’t know she’s either allowed to play baseball or even throw a baseball,” Luchanski said, adding Baseball Alberta is doing great things in trying to grow the sport. She cites the recent creation of a new position: Women’s Baseball Technical Coordinator.
It’s those kinds of supports that she hopes will keep evolving the game in this province and beyond, which she believes will go a long way in developing role models.
With the national program being created when she was a teenager, she had to look elsewhere for hers. The internet was still in its infancy at the time, so learning about them didn’t come easy.
She looks at someone like Ila Borders, who was the first woman to start and win a men’s NCAA or NAIA college baseball game in the mid-1990s, as an inspiring player. But it was more than one.
“Just the girls here and there who played on college teams and never really became big names or anything,” Luchanski recalled. “But they’re in the record books for having done it.”
She used that fact as inspiration.
“Being about 14 and realizing that it’s been done and can be done, it’s not like they made it very far, they didn’t make it into affiliated baseball or anything but it was just nice to see those names,” she continued.
Luchanski could very well end up being one of those names for Alberta girls in the years to come. And while it might be weird to her that people might ask for her autograph at games or think she’s setting trends, Luchanski also sees it as another opportunity.
“We’re growing, we’re like where women’s hockey was 25 years ago,” she said. “You may not be able to play on a girl’s team the whole way up. There will be girls teams you can get on here and there, it’s going to be awesome. But you may have to play with some boys here as we try to grow.”