If the Aussie Spirit players are wondering what to expect when they head to the USA for their inaugural season in the National Pro Fastpitch league, they won’t have to look far for advice.
Stacey McManus was one of seven Australians to play for the Chicago Bandits in the NPF last year, so she knows what to expect.
At first glance, her season with the Bandits might not look like a success, as she had limited playing time. But McManus says she learned a lot and developed as a player last year.
“Being in that professional playing environment, I felt like it gave me a chance to not have to worry about all the stuff you have to worry about at home,” she says.
“I could just concentrate on training and improving my game of softball.”
Already, members of the Aussie Spirit’s inaugural NPF team have started asking McManus questions about the league.
“I tell them it’s a great opportunity, whether you play or not,” she says. “Just the practise is going to improve your game, let alone when you get out there and start playing. And it’s exciting, so much different from back in Australia.
“Here we have to work to pay for our softball, whereas when we’re over there we don’t have to worry about all that. We don’t have to worry about having a stressful day at work and then having to train three hours at night.
“And the facilities are great, whether we’re playing at a college field or at one of the other pro teams.”
McManus agrees that the deal struck by the NPF and Softball Australia to add the Spirit team to the league will be a huge benefit, particularly as it leads into the XVI Women’s Softball World Championship in Chiba, Japan, in August.
“I think it’s going to be great,” she says. “It will give us plenty of playing time, which is what we need because we don’t get that at home.”
In the past, the Australians have often had to play in World Championships out of season, having not had any serious competition since the Australian summer. Although some players would come from playing in international leagues, there was precious little time to get together as a team.
That won’t be an issue this time.
“It’s going to be very helpful, especially once the whole team gets there,” McManus says.
Some of the Aussie Spirit players have commitments that will prevent them from playing in the early part of the NPF season. But McManus will be there from day one.
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It’s a huge commitment, and for players who have non-softball careers to think of, it can be difficult to arrange the time off work required. McManus, a transport co-ordinator at Clemenger International Freight in Sydney, is grateful that her employer has supported her softball career.
“They have been really good to me,” she says. “They hired a temp to cover my job while I’m away. And they’ve also been good about letting me arrive to work late on gym days and leave early in training days.”
Those training days have been a part of McManus’s life for 25 years. Both parents and her sister played softball, so nobody was surprised when four-year-old Stacey first stepped on to a softball diamond.
She has been a stalwart of New South Wales Firestars teams at National Championships, having played for the Southern Storm in the Sutherland Shire Softball Association.
Now 29, McManus has represented the Aussie Spirit 103 times, starting with the 2011 Canada Cup.
She is a sure-handed middle infielder who has impressed her coaches with her hitting and defence. None more so than Aussie Spirit Head Coach Fabian Barlow.
“Stacey has been in the Aussie Spirit team for several years now and brings a lot of experience and knowledge that will be valuable in both the NPF and World Championship,” Barlow says.
“She plays both second base and shortstop at a very elite level and has really set the standard defensively for middle infielders in the country over the last five or six years.
“Stacey is a reliable international hitter who puts the ball in play consistently, which allows us to put runners in motion on offence knowing Macca will ask questions of the defence.”
When the Aussie Spirit arrive in Chiba after the NPF season, McManus will also be on familiar territory. “It’s pretty different,” she says of her experience in Japan. “The Japanese really get behind their team. They’re just so enthusiastic about their sport. It’s a great culture there.”
While some players are intimidated or at least distracted by the noisy and exuberant crowds in Japan, McManus is not fazed. “It pumps you up. It’s not really a distraction. It’s something you can use to your own advantage.”
- The 2018 National Pro Fastpitch season starts on May 19. The first game is between the Aussie Spirit and Beijing Tigers at Missouri Western University.
- The XVI Women’s Softball World Championship in Chiba, Japan, will be held from August 2-12. The winner receives automatic qualification into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.