For the Aussie Spirit, their debut season in the National Pro Fastpitch league is now in the rear-view mirror. But the experience gained and lessons learned in the NPF will last a long time.
Although there are still some games to be played, the Aussie Spirit are almost certain to finish a credible third in the five-team league, with a 16-32 win-loss record.
While NPF wins were always welcome, the coaches and players always had their eyes on the main objective: to give them the best possible preparation ahead of the XVI Women’s Softball World Championship, which starts in Chiba, Japan on August 2.
Whatever happens in Chiba, the Aussie Spirit will go into this World Championship better prepared than ever before.
According to Softball Australia Chief Operating Officer Chet Gray, the NPF experience was a success on several levels.
Based at Missouri Western State University, the players were looked after exceptionally well and had top-class facilities for training, playing and downtime. The constant travelling and playing or training daily over 10 weeks was a new experience for most of the Aussie Spirit players.
“The objectives we had in mind were to get the hitters more at-bats, get the pitchers more innings, and get everyone in an environment where they’re playing every day,” Gray says.
“I must give credit to the whole group for the resilience they showed in this program. It was unknown for us. We didn’t know what we were getting ourselves into.
“We had investigated it as much as we could, but we didn’t know what impact it would have on the players, who were thrown in at the deep end against top-quality opposition and responded incredibly well.”
Many of the Australian players were unavailable in May-June, so the Spirit recruited some local pitchers to share the workload. Players and coaches were impressed with how well the US pitchers blended with the team and contributed to several wins.
“It was difficult to get our best players there for that length of time,” Gray says. “Some of them have jobs or university commitments. We were able to arrange for some of the athletes doing university degrees in Australia to sit for exams in Missouri.”
The players’ lives were made easier by the presence of High Performance Manager Simone Wearne and Performance Enhancement Coordinator Dee Anderson. “They did tremendous jobs, and the coaching staff we had over there were able to concentrate on doing what they do best,” Gray says.
“Credit must go to our support staff such as physiotherapist Nathaniel Harnett. We were concerned at the effect playing every day would have on the girls who are not used to it, but Nathaniel was able to keep them on the diamond.”
Missouri Western University is a long way from Australia, but the staff there did their best to make the Aussie Spirit feel at home. “It’s a fantastic place and the people there looked after us very well,” Gray says. “We can’t thank them enough for the help and support they gave us.”
Gray is also appreciative of the support provided by Kate Palmer and the Australian Sports Commission, and for the efforts of Midwest Sports Productions in Missouri for their work with venue management and game-day operations.
Aussie Spirit Head Coach Fabian Barlow says the NPF experience provided the type of competition his team needed ahead of Chiba.
“We have really enjoyed our time in the NPF and been tested every night at the ballpark, which is exactly what we needed as part of our Worlds preparations,” Barlow says.
“At times the performances have been a little hit and miss, but that’s allowed us to regroup, assess and go at it again the next night.”
Barlow’s focus is now firmly on the World Championship, where the winning team will receive automatic qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
“We now head to Ota City, where we have secured 10 games against division one and two teams as well as a couple of training days,” he says. “We have also factored in some downtime to allow both the athletes and staff to recharge the batteries as we get ready for the next phase of our preparation.
“We have come out of the NPF relatively injury free, which is a credit to our medical staff and strength and conditioning coaches both here and back home.
“We have been very mindful of both training and playing loads whilst in the grind of the NPF and hopefully we continue to get the benefits of this and remain healthy.”