Aussie Spirit Head Coach Fabian Barlow says his players know exactly where they stand after they finished runners-up at the International Down Under Series in Sydney.
A brilliant pitching performance by Yukari Hamamura carried Japan to a 4-0 victory in the final, making it back-to-back Down Under Series titles for the world’s top-ranked team.
Barlow said the result was an accurate reflection of where the Spirit stand in the softball world.
“Kudos to Hamamura, she pitched a great game. And she is probably only their third or fourth highest ranked pitcher, which just goes to show what sort of depth there is in Japan,” Barlow said.
“It shows we still have a lot of work to do with our hitting. The tournament was just what we needed to show where we’re at and what our priorities are.”
The Spirit got off to a promising start in the final, with leadoff hitter Leigh Godfrey opening the game with a single, followed by a walk to Stacey McManus. But Hamamura responded with a strikeout and two pop-ups to end the threat.
The second inning also began encouraginly for the Aussies as Samantha Poole led off with a double and went to third on Clare Warwick’s sacrifice bunt. But again Hamamura came through with big pitches at the right time, keeping the Spirit off the scoreboard.
“We had some early momentum but missed some opportunities to kick the door down,” Barlow said. “It’s an area we need to get better at. We have to be mentally tougher in those situations. We need to develop mental strength, and getting more international exposure will help with that.”
Spirit pitcher Kaia Parnaby was in complete control through the first two innings, not allowing a ball to leave the infield. But in the third inning, a combination of a base hit, a fielding error and a wild pitch gave Japan a 1-0 lead.
The Japanese doubled their lead in the fourth, with a single, a sacrifice bunt and another single.
Ellen Roberts relieved Parnaby to start the fifth inning, and Japan responded with two runs on three hits. Some great defensive work by Poole and Chelsea Forkin produced outs at third base and home, restricting the damage to two runs.
But the 4-0 lead proved more than enough for Japan. Apart from a brief threat in the sixth inning, when McManus singled and Forkin reached on an error, the Aussies had no answers to Hamamura.
“The players were told a few home truths after the final,” Barlow said. “Now we need to see how they respond and how they go about making themselves better.
“Our athletes have to remember that it’s all about making good decisions. Not just how they play on game day, but at training and at home. Do I sit on the couch or do I go out and get some more work done? Players don’t have to wait for their coach to organise practice. They can go out and hit off a tee or into a screen any time. It’s all part of being part of a successful international team.”
Barlow paid tribute to tournament MVP Stacey Porter and batting champion Chelsea Forkin. “They are great players, but even they would admit there were times when they needed to do more. Everybody on the team can improve, and needs to improve if we are to achieve our goals.”
He also recognised the outstanding work of pitchers Gabrielle Plain and Ellen Roberts, who stepped up at international level.
New Zealand finished third in the tournament after a 3-2 win over the Australian All Stars on the final day.
This game went down to the wire, with the Kiwis scoring two runs in the top of the seventh inning, then holding off the All Stars in the bottom of the inning despite a triple by Jessica Torpey and an infield single by Jemma Freegard.
The All Stars won only one game, a 7-0 result over New Zealand on Friday, but put in some strong performances in defeat, particularly in a 1-0 loss to the Spirit and a 2-0 loss to Japan.
All Stars Head Coach Kerrie Porter was impressed by the way her team played against top-quality competition in oppressive conditions.
“Every athlete on the team contributed, and we saw a lot of growth from the start to the end of the tournament,” Porter said. “It was a very positive environment and the players got a lot out of it.
“For some of the players it was their first experience representing against strong international competition, and they handled it really well. They have seen what it takes to step up the next level, and several of them showed that they are ready to do that.”
Porter was also impressed by the way her team reacted to oppressive conditions at Blacktown International Sportspark. “It was unbelievably hot, even at the night games. But no one, players or staff, complained. They focused on with the job and handled themselves very well. ”
Both coaches gave the tournament format a big tick. “Having the All Stars team was a great benefit to our program, because it means no one in the Spirit squad is comfortable,” Barlow said. “There’s internal pressure to keep your spot in the team. And the Spirit players have seen first hand that there are plenty of others who are capable of being in that team.”
Individual awards at Down Under Series
Batting – Chelsea Forkin (Aussie Spirit)
Pitching – Ayaka Izumi (Japan)
MVP – Stacey Porter (Aussie Spirit)
Player of the Final – Hamamura (Japan)