Ashley Stephenson will always remember the first time she heard her national anthem while standing on the base line while suiting up for Canada at an international event.
She gets goosebumps thinking about representing the maple leaf at the 2004 Women’s Baseball World Cup in Edmonton.
“It’s tough to put into words when you’re standing there,” Stephenson told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
“I had borderline tears in my eyes, and I was thinking, ‘I have to play a game in a minute, pull it together.’”
Eighteen years later, the pride persists.
Now as a coach with the national team, she wants that feeling to be bottled up for every player who dons the red-and-white.
“When we handed out the jerseys to our players for the Friendship Series against the United States, we took a picture of every single one of them,” Stephenson said.
“I was like, ‘You’re never going to forget, whether it’s your first, fourth or tenth one.’”
Not only did she present the coaches with their jerseys, but they presented the national team legend with hers.
It was an opportunity she doesn’t take for granted, as she loves the program and the game for all it has given to her.
“I would do anything to make it more successful and allow our players to have opportunities that were as good as mine and better,” she said.
“Part of it is growing the sport to the point that it’s better than where it started and where I left.”
DRIVEN TO SUCCEED
If there’s one thing that is clear when listening to Stephenson talk about growing the game, it’s that she is incredibly well-spoken and passionate about it.
After seeing it as a player and now as a coach, the 39-year-old sees plenty of opportunities to do it both here and abroad.
Within our borders, one key will be to see more girls staying with the game and not jumping over to softball because of the stigmas still attached to the idea that boys play baseball and girls play softball.
“We have a committee trying to grow the women’s game, but we need local associations to have a champion, to offer it, to want to run it, to want to build it,” Stephenson said.
“Women playing with and against other women shouldn’t be downplayed, as it has to happen more often because it’s a different game.”
She points to pitch selection (fastballs in the men’s game vs. more curves and changeups in the women’s game) and infield placement (heels on the grass vs. closer in for speed and arm strength) as some of the nuances.
Neither is better or worse, she notes, they are just different.
Stephenson says having those experiences more at home will translate to more success down the road as the young athletes hope to make a name for themselves on the national team.
She adds it’s important to raise the profile of the women’s game as well, whether it’s through the recent announcement of female baseball being added to the Canada Summer Games in 2025, or whether it’s through advocating for women’s baseball in the Olympics.
THE FUTURE IS COMING
In Stephenson’s eyes, it won’t be long until some fresh faces in the national program become household names worth building the game around.
Filling in for current manager Aaron Myette, she had a front-row seat for the aforementioned Friendship Series, which started on an ominous note with a 16-2 loss.
However, the team bounced back to split the remaining four games of the five-game series, Canada’s first games against international competition since before the pandemic.
Stephenson admits the team is in a bit of a renewal, with several key players having moved on over the last few years.
“We’re really, really excited about our future,” she said.
“I think our young core is really, really good, but what they need is more time.”
She points to a handful of players who continue to make an impact despite their ages: pitcher Alli Schroeder, outfielder Mia Valcke and Alberta’s Ellie Jespersen.
“Ellie is outstanding,” Stephenson said. “Unbelievable hands, great at the plate, doesn’t necessarily hit for lots of power because, if you’ve seen her, she’s about a hundred pounds soaking wet, but she can handle the bat, and has never seen a pitcher who throws too hard for her to handle, and she can swipe a base.”
She believes that Canada will be right where it wants to be heading into the next Women’s Baseball World Cup.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
Stephenson is acclimatizing well to her career transition within baseball.
Right before the pandemic began, she had been pegged to be the team’s third base coach, then took the reigns a few weeks before the Friendship Series due to Myette’s availability.
“I’ve loved every single minute of it,” Stephenson said. “I love all those pieces of the puzzle that you put together – that’s part of the game to me that’s really fun.”
She also gets to keep playing the role of mentor, ambassador and trailblazer.
Following her tremendous playing career, the two-time winner of the Jimmy Rattlesnake Award is now the namesake for that same award.
In September, Stevenson became the first female to hold a coaching position at the Canadian Futures Showcase, formerly known as the Tournament 12.
“I will be honest, nothing beats playing, it’s the absolute best,” she said in an interview with Canadian Baseball Network.
“But I think it’s really good for some of the guys to just see some representation out there. I think it really does matter that players see female coaches on the field.”
A physical education teacher, she used the opportunity to be a sponge herself, learning from the other coaches around her, while showing the players how to best showcase their stuff, just like she does with the national women’s team.
It’s all in the game of giving back to the game that gave her so much, and while her resume is already quite impressive, she’s not standing idly by, expecting everything to be handed to her.
She wants to keep the positive momentum around women’s sports to continue, and, in the meantime, would love to once again be standing on foul line near her team’s dugout for more international tournaments in the years ahead.