Making An Impact

By IAN WILSON and JOE McFARLAND

You can’t spell “baseball” without “A … L … B … E …” … well, you get the picture.

Baseball Canada’s 2019 Women’s Invitational Championships – which pitted rivals from four provinces and a national prospects team against one another – have come and gone from Okotoks and Alberta turned in another impressive performance.

In addition to capturing their second straight bronze-medal finish at the event, Alberta saw eight players chosen to participate in the national team’s three-day selection camp that followed the July 4-8 tournament at Tourmaline Field and Seaman Stadium. Of those eight players, five earned spots on this year’s Women’s National Team, including Spruce Grove sisters Carrie and Ellie Jespersen, Red Deer’s Kelsey Lalor, Edmontonian Madison Willan, and Kaitlyn Ross of Redcliff.

Taking up a quarter of the 20-player roster, the province has put its stamp on Canada’s baseball scene, which comes as no surprise to Team Alberta head coach Drew Boyer.

“This year we’ve got some really good rookies coming up and a really solid veteran presence with this club,” Boyer told ADS: The Podcast before the tournament began.

“We really are well rounded. I think we have a group of really good hitters and a really solid defensive core behind us.”

LUCHANSKI LEGACY

Boyer conceded losing “heart and soul” second baseman and two-time Women’s National Team MVP Nicole Luchanski to retirement was difficult, but added that Willan, Carrie Jespersen, Sam Ostrom and sisters Kelsey and Hayley Lalor have stepped up as leaders on the provincial squad.

“One thing that stands out with coaching the women’s team is just their drive to learn the game and get better day in and day out,” said Boyer.

“The girls really buy in to what you tell them and what you’re teaching them and that’s been really humbling for me as a coach.”

Pitcher and infielder Ellie Jespersen, who was named the top defensive player in the tournament, cited Luchanski as a major influence on her baseball pursuits.

“One of the biggest people who inspired me when I was young is Nicole Luchanski because she was on the national team and she played second base, and that’s the position I play, so I always wanted to be like her and play on the national team, just like she did,” said the 16-year-old, who played with her sisters Carrie and Robin for the first time in Okotoks.

“My goal from the very beginning has been to play on Team Canada, so I’ve been doing everything I can to get there.”

APPLE DOESN’T FALL FAR …

The wait for Ellie Jespersen is over, but the process is just beginning for 15-year-old pitcher Helaina Appleyard.

“I thought I’ll probably sit on the bench a lot and maybe get my chance to pitch once,” said the Calgarian of her anticipated role on Team Alberta entering the Women’s Invitational Championships.

Instead, Appleyard got the start on the mound in the bronze-medal game and pitched 6.2 innings in Alberta’s 7-6 win over British Columbia.

“When I went to pitch in the bronze game, I did pretty good, and I was driving home and I got a call from my coach saying that I made the top 25 and I literally couldn’t believe it,” recalled Appleyard of the moment she was notified that she’d been invited to the national selection camp.

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Helaina Appleyard listens to one of the coaches at the Team Canada selection camp at Tourmaline Field in Okotoks … photo by Ian Wilson

Appleyard – whose father, Aaron, is a baseball coach – did not secure a spot on the national team, but she said the experience she gained was invaluable.

“They’re great ball players,” she said of her fellow national team hopefuls.

“Just watching them play and learning from them is awesome. I want to learn from the best so I can get better.”

CATCHING FIRE

One of the best players that Appleyard got a chance to learn from was Ross, who was named the top catcher of the tournament.

The 18-year-old, who is also a goaltender in hockey, said Alberta’s role on the national team continues to grow.

“Over the years, Alberta’s definitely becoming a stronger face on that team. The Alberta girls do have a big impact on that team,” said Ross, who plays American Legion baseball in Medicine Hat.

She also sees the sport of baseball growing in Canada, with the country currently slotted in second place by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Women’s Baseball world rankings.

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Kaitlyn Ross, right, awaits the arrival of the baseball shortly before tagging out a runner at home plate during scrimmage play for Team Canada … photo by Ian Wilson

“I definitely think the word is starting to get out there. There are more female players playing baseball at younger ages. It’s becoming more open … the word is getting out that girls can compete and play at a high level,” said Ross.

“I definitely want to keep playing for the national team and keep playing as long as my body lets me. I love the sport and don’t want to give it up ever.”

ON A MISSION

Wearing two hats for Team Alberta at the tournament was Janice Willan, who served as the chef de mission for the provincial squad and baseball mom to her daughter, Madison.

A teacher with a physical education background, Janice was tasked with taking care of transportation, meal arrangements and providing first-aid care, if needed, at the Women’s Invitational.

She served in the role at last year’s national championships in Montreal, and in a similar capacity on Madison’s hockey teams.

“The girls are pretty good and pretty self-sufficient. If they need something, they come and talk to me,” said Janice.

“You’re a support system that’s here for them when they need it.”

In her role as a mother, Janice considers herself fortunate.

“Honestly, we’ve been very lucky. She’s a great kid. We haven’t done a lot of parenting. This is who she really is. She’s always been this kid, so just trying to help her maintain who she is and giving her some direction is what we’ve done,” she said.

“We’re just trying to manage her life and to make sure that she’s balancing it appropriately, and not get to a spot where she’s at an age and realizing that she’s missed out on something or she feels like she hasn’t done what she really wanted to do,” added Janice of Madison, who is the captain of the St. Albert Slash hockey team.

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Madison Willan, wearing No. 6 for Team Alberta, waits for a pitch during play at the 2019 Women’s Invitational Championship in Okotoks … photo by Ian Wilson

“When she’s feeling overwhelmed, how do you stop and take a look at what you’re doing, make choices and revamp it? Because she is growing up, she is 18 years old … her schedule is crazy, not going to lie, but she loves it, and just watching her with the girls here, the laughter and the giggles, this is her fun time. This just seems to be her happy place.”

The 2019 Women’s National Team will compete in a World Cup qualifier in Mexico from Aug. 18-25.

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