Three’s Company

By JOE McFARLAND

It might be an understatement to say that the Baseball Canada Women’s National Team awards came out of left field.

With everyone’s attention firmly on the latest developments on the COVID-19 pandemic, few were ready for the recent announcement that four awards were being handed out.

Red Deer’s Kelsey Lalor was named the team’s Most Valuable Player, putting together an impressive .563 batting average with eight runs scored and nine hits (including a home run) for Canada at the Women’s Baseball World Cup Qualifier in Mexico last summer.

Fellow Albertan Ellie Jespersen was given the Futures Award. She became a starter as the youngest player on the team, while Prince George’s Amanda Asay was rewarded with her leadership of the young squad by being named the Ashley Stephenson Award recipient.

The final award went to another Albertan: Nicole Luchanski. Having retired at the end of 2018, the Edmonton product was recognized for her contributions to the game with the Special Recognition Award. “It is without a doubt that Nicole’s dedication to the National Team program is something that should be celebrated and used as an example for future players,” the news release read.

 

 

“I just saw it in the tweet like everyone else did and I thought it was a mistake,” Luchanski laughed. “But then I read the story obviously and saw what they had done there and it was really, really amazing.”

It’s a sentiment that is shared by all three Alberta products. It may also be something we could get used to, with several young players from this province making an impact nationally. Kaitlyn Ross, Madison Willan, Helaina Appleyard and Cydnie Moore are all turning heads.

MOST VALUABLE LALOR

With a handful of stalwarts of the national team having retired over the last couple of seasons, including Luchanski, the team needed to shift its expectations on other returning players.

One of those was Lalor.

The highly-decorated six-year veteran had a stellar 2018 Women’s Baseball World Cup, earning the Baseball Alberta Open Women’s Player of the Year Award.

She followed it up with an even better performance in Mexico, leading to her being named the national team’s MVP.

“Her game was truly impressive in all aspects throughout the qualifying tournament,” Baseball Canada brass said about the 22-year-old.

Lalor admits she was surprised by the honour.

“I mean, I guess that’s always a title that you love having attached to your name,” Lalor told Alberta Dugout Stories. “It’s obviously a really good feeling. It’s really cool.”

She believes several other players could have been named the MVP, including Asay, Jespersen, Claire Eccles and Stacy Fournier. It made her proud of their bronze medal performance in a number of ways.

“We had a really young group with a lot of new faces who had never been to an international competition before,” Lalor said. “I’m really excited for the future of this team and where have the opportunity to go.”

 

 

For now, the Boise State softball player is back at home, waiting to get the green light to get back on the field as the COVID-19 pandemic has everything on hold.

BEYOND HER YEARS

That future, meanwhile, looks equally bright for a young Spruce Grove product by the name of Ellie Jespersen.

As a 16-year-old, Jespersen picked up two Baseball Alberta awards in November before being handed the Futures Award through Baseball Canada.

“2019 was definitely a year I will remember forever,” Jespersen said in an email to Alberta Dugout Stories. “I earned some amazing awards that have given me inspiration to push even harder at the sport I love.”

Her coaches were immediately impressed by how she performed on the national level, showing a “maturity beyond her years” in hitting .471 with three runs scored and seven hits.

“Ellie’s positive attitude, work ethic and eagerness to improve makes her future with the National Team incredibly bright,” wrote Baseball Canada.

She also had the opportunity to play on the team with her sister, Carrie, which she says was a childhood dream. The pair have been working out together while they wait out the COVID-19 pandemic, getting themselves ready for when they are able to get back onto the field.

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Ellie Jespersen looks on at the Open Women’s Championships in Okotoks during the summer of 2019 … photo by Ian Wilson

The virus also gave her some perspective on the award, as she and her teammates watched their season get put on hold.

“When I see all the suffering going on in the world right now, our sporting sacrifice doesn’t seem as big as other sacrifices around us in the world,” Jespersen said. “I just know that, for me as an athlete, for our governing baseball bodies to send out the award notifications in the middle of all this gave me hope that the world will get back to normal and that life and baseball will go on.”

And when it does, her teammates are excited to see what she will do for an encore.

“She’s such an exciting player,” Lalor beamed. “She’s just getting started and she’s already had such a great tournament. There’s no limit for her.”

LUCH THE LEGEND

She may have retired 16 months ago, but Nicole Luchanski is far from a senior citizen.

The 30-year-old can’t help but smile after being handed the Special Recognition Award from Baseball Canada. She becomes the third member of the team to receive it, after Kate Psota and Ashley Stephenson. In her mind, she has become part of the “Old Woman Hall of Fame.”

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Nicole Luchanski gets set to throw the ball with Baseball Canada. (Photo courtesy: Baseball Canada)

“You don’t really do your career to get accolades and you don’t really do it for what other people think of you,” Luchanski said on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “So, to see that people saw my career in that way was really special.”

Tracking the achievements of the women’s team is a bit of a challenge, Luchanski admits, as they don’t have a hall of fame, number retirements or even a career statistics database. They are dependent on those involved in the program and their own reputations. When it comes to the latter, her fellow Albertans are quick to respond.

“She put in so much time and effort and work and she’s really a role model for me and just a great teammate and great baseball player,” Lalor said.

Jespersen had two words to describe Luchanski: “the legend.”

READ MORE: Alberta’s All-Decade Squad

“It’s so funny because I see them as friends and teammates and not as fans or anything,” Luchanski responded. “It’s really cool because I didn’t go out to be some big thing or to make it my mission to be this huge leader for them or anything.”

Since retiring in December 2018, Luchanski has been catching up on some things she wasn’t able to do while she was focusing on baseball, including traveling and working north of Edmonton. She admits life has been a lot different not thinking about the game every minute of every day.

But it was a nice surprise to be recognized once again for her contributions.

“I just did the best I could do and to have them look at that and say ‘I should be doing that, too’ is basically the best thing I could have asked for.”

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