Taylah Tsitsikronis has become the first player to sign a contract with the Aussie Spirit to play in the National Pro Fastpitch league in the USA this year.
It’s the first of many such signings as the Spirit prepare to play in the 2018 NPF season to gain maximum game time ahead of the XVI Women’s Softball World Championship in Chiba, Japan from August 2-12.
While most Spirit players have had experience playing overseas, and some have played professionally in the US, Japan and Europe, this will be the first time they have had a chance to play together as a team in a professional environment.
The five-team NPF competition involves each team playing about 50 games, although the game schedule has not yet been finalised.
The Aussie Spirit players will be based at Missouri Western University and play “home” games at various stadiums in Missouri and surrounding states.
Some players have been unable to commit for the full NPF season, but Tsitsikronis will be among those who will be there from start to finish, beginning on May 10 and going through until the team leaves for Japan in late July.
While the adventure will be a new one for many players, Tsitsikronis will be able to call on her experience of having played in the past two NPF seasons, first with the Pennsylvania Rebellion in 2016 and then with the Chicago Bandits last year, when she was one of seven Australians in the team.
She expects that experience to be important, both for herself and for the knowledge she can pass on to others. “It’s very different to what we are used to in Australia,” she says. “But I’ll go into this season knowing what to expect and knowing how to prepare myself to get the best out of it.”
The most important lesson Tsitsikronis learned from her two professional seasons was how to bounce back after a tough game or sub-par performance.
“You’re not going to be at your best every game,” she says. “If you do have a bad day you have to learn to get over it quickly and move on. Chances are there’ll be another game next day, so you can’t get down about it.
“It’s the same in the World Championship. You have to get over one game quickly and prepare for the next one.”
Although she has had two seasons in the NPF, this one will be different as she will be playing with Aussie Spirit teammates, many of whom she has known for several years.
And unlike her experience with the Rebellion and the Bandits, this time Australian coaches, including Aussie Spirit Head Coach Fabian Barlow, will be in control.
“It will be different playing with girls I’m used to playing with,” Tsitsikronis says. “And it will also be different playing for coaches who know me and what I bring to the team. I won’t feel like I have to prove myself. The coaches know what they get from me.”
In her first year in the NPF, Tsitsikronis went to the Rebellion with a reputation as a defensive catcher. But over the past two years her hitting has improved markedly, to the extent that she bats in the middle of the Spirit lineup and delivers much of the power needed to drive in runs.
“Playing in the NPF has helped my hitting a lot,” she says. “It’s made me more knowledgable about my game. I know my own swing back to front.”
While she welcomes input from coaches, Tsitsikronis believes she has learned to self-adjust when things aren’t going so well in the batter’s box. “I’ve learned how to handle the ups and downs. And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with my swing, it’s just mental.”
Having come into the Spirit team primarily as a catcher, Tsitsikronis has also seen time at first base and in the outfield as her strong hitting demanded that she be in the lineup somewhere. If she has a preferred position, she doesn’t make a big deal of it. “We all have our preferences, but I’ll do whatever is best for the team. I’ll play wherever they want me to play.”
Although she is only 23, Tsitsikronis has already represented the Aussie Spirit 58 times, starting with the 2014 World Championship in Haarlem, Netherlands.
In recent international tournaments she has been in outstanding form. At the 2017 Canada Cup, Tsitsikronis finished with a .448 batting average with two home runs and seven RBIs, behind only Stacey Porter.
In January, the Aussie Spirit played a four-game series against Japanese professional team Denso Bright Pegasus in Adelaide. Tsitsikronis led the team’s offence with seven hits for the tournament, including all three of the team’s home runs.
Having started as a junior with the Penrith in Sydney’s west, Tsitsikronis has also been a key member of the NSW Firestars team that won the Gilley’s Shield in each of the past two years.