The United States lost its grip on Olympic softball supremacy a decade ago when it fell to Japan in the gold-medal game in 2008. The wait to try to reclaim a place atop the podium finally is ending.
The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are two years away, but this summer marks the first on-field step in softball's return to the world's biggest sporting stage. Cut from the program after 2008, softball will be contested in Tokyo (although the sport's Olympic future beyond that is unsettled).
Six countries will compete in 2020, two fewer than in the four previous Olympics that featured softball. As host, Japan qualifies automatically. One more team will qualify at next month's WBSC World Championship in Chiba, Japan -- either the champion or the runner-up, if Japan wins the championship. The United States lost titles to its archrival in the 2012 and 2014 world championships, but it is the defending champion after winning in 2016.
The remaining four Olympic berths, two from the Americas, one from Asia and one from Europe or Africa, will be determined by additional qualifying events in 2019. So while Team USA will be heavily favored to qualify by some route, success in Japan this summer would make that process considerably less stressful and time intensive.
To that end, USA Softball chose to field two national teams this summer, a secondary roster that recently traveled to Japan for a three-game exhibition series and a primary roster that will play in the world championship. Both teams will compete in next week's USA Softball International Cup, a 13-team tournament that also includes Japan and Scrap Yard Fast Pitch, the now-independent organization that won a title as a member of National Pro Fastpitch a year ago.
This summer also marks a continued thaw in the relationship between USA Softball and NPF. In addition to many Scrap Yard players, including former Olympian Monica Abbott in her return to international competition, the American rosters include a number of NPF players, including former Olympian Kelly Kretschman and Keilani Ricketts of the USSSA Pride.
Ken Eriksen, coach of the women's national team since 2011, and Chris Sebren, the director of national teams for USA Softball, took questions from espnW about the road to 2020.
Q: You were on the Team USA coaching staff in 2002, two years out from the Athens Olympics. Are there ways that this moment, two years out from the Tokyo Olympics, feels similar or different?
Eriksen: In 2002 we had already gone through two quadrennials of financial preparation. And right now we are basically back to square one. There were no Olympics for the last 10 years, so there has been no financial support from the USOC as there was back then. So we really have started from scratch in the preparation point for 2020. So I think that part of it, the support stuff and the number of people we had back in 2002, is different now. ...
As far as the scheduling goes, also, we had more time back then to prepare because you had the financial obligation of the USOC. So it was easier when we trained in Chula Vista, California, where we had a home base to go out to. Now we really don't. Now we're depending on a lot of the commissioners through [USA Softball] or people like Scrap Yard -- organizations to supply us with practice venues and opportunities to train. It's been a little more tedious in that way.
As far as the players are concerned, we had a pool of players back in 2002 that were kind of in the system already. And right now, because we haven't had the Olympics since 2008, it's kind of been in a little bit of disarray. At the same time, we went and got some core players I felt were going to mature right around the 2015-16 time because we thought that might have been the next shot at the Olympics. And those guys actually did a great job by winning the  world championships. So right now, yeah, we do have a core of players that are at that great age of 25 to 29 years old that have experience, life experience, to make it easier to be on the field.
Q: When you talk about being at square one financially, do you see any difference between this summer compared to the last world championship in 2016?
Eriksen: No, it's kind of still the same. It's on the [national governing body] right now. And then as we go forward, moving through and continue to qualify, there is probably a little more financial support moving forward [from the USOC]. Chris Sebren and [USA Softball executive director] Craig Cress have been doing tremendous due diligence going out to Colorado Springs, talking to the USOC people, and the money is starting to get in now. But, remember, the money is starting to get in now, but it wasn't there when you were planning in December or January.
Q: Has the USOC financial support changed since the [IOC] vote in 2016?
Sebren: It has changed. Back in 2016, we really weren't getting anything at all. So it has affected our bottom line. But with that bottom line, we're also looking at more training opportunities and things like that. It has helped -- there's no question about that. And with just the direct athlete support that the USOC provides, it's helping our women within the program with their training expenses during the course of the year when we're not together.
Q: What was the rationale in fielding two USA teams this summer?
Eriksen: I can tell you it's important to have a pool of players that continue to get some type of international experience. To have a Triple-A team, that is the team that went to the Japan All-Star Series, is kind of important. We did train together so they could be on the same page with cutoffs and relays and short game and all that kind of philosophy. ... If we did have to go get somebody off that team, we could get them in and they could incorporate themselves right away into what we're doing. We're trying to stay as consistent as possible on all that stuff.
Q: Was there always a sense one would be an "A" team and one would be a "B" team?
Sebren: We were naming the world championship team first as a committee. That's who the selection committee was focused on selecting in January. Then they would name that second group of athletes that would go and participate at the Japan All-Star Series as well as the International Cup. We felt all along that the quality of athletes we have in the U.S. is sometimes going to be our best opponent to get us ready for the world championship. Obviously our goal this summer is to win the world championship and go ahead and qualify for the Olympics. Having that opportunity to have another U.S. team compete against our world championship team, we felt that could help us prepare for that event.
Q: How difficult would it be for somebody not among the 37 players currently on one of the USA rosters to make a 2020 Olympic roster, qualification willing?
Eriksen: We need to think about the process itself and the attrition that goes to finally getting to a group of 15. You can't win with all-star teams. You've got to play together for a long period of time. And whether that long period of time is 12 months or 24 months or whatever you deem it to be, you're trying to see everybody on the same page. People are like real estate. The longer you hold on to them, the more valuable they become. So the [player pool] as we go forward to the next trials may not be 64 people anymore. It might only be 32. It might only be 40. That's a decision the national-team office has to make. But right now, the experience these guys are getting ... I think the advantage goes to the players with the most experience.
I think it's also important to realize back in 2002, there were three players that were not on that world championship team -- Crystl Bustos, Kelly Kretschman and Cat Osterman. But they played on the elite team, that secondary team that was the Triple-A team, and actually beat the varsity, so to speak, in the Canada Cup to win the gold medal. ... It just goes to show you there is a tremendous amount of depth in the United States. To just go two years out with one team, I think you're cheating the opportunity for players on other teams to get a look.
Q: Does the mere fact of having Monica Abbott available make this the best pitching staff you've had since you took over?
Eriksen: It's the best potential pitching staff. If you ask me how we're going to do this year, I'll say talk to me in September. Right now, what Monica adds to your team is the ability to throw the ball very well. She hasn't pitched for USA since 2010, I believe, so getting on the same page with how we're going to attack national teams is a little different than playing the club-level ball with four, maybe, really good players instead of nine really good players on each team we face. She's trying to fit in right now with the philosophy that goes on with attacking hitters in certain situations, then trying to get on the same page with the catchers, trying to get on the same page with the infield.
Everybody knows who Monica Abbott is, but right now she fits into the socialistic aspect of Team USA. She's doing very well with that right now. I think her main objective is to get this team to the top of the podium, not just in 2018 but 2019 in the Pan-Am Games and 2020 in Tokyo. It's a whole different deal when you're dealing with the best of the best.
Q: Do you anticipate Rachel Garcia playing a similar role internationally as she does in college? Will we see her both hitting and pitching?
Eriksen: I think so. I mean, Rachel Garcia is one of the best athletes in college right now. ... Right now you have a pitching staff of four or five, so you don't have to throw every inning of every day. To me, that's a crime in itself. So with the national-team program, when you've got four pitchers or five pitchers, the distribution of innings in a short period of time lends itself to more rest and recovery. So you're getting the best of the best out of that person. So you'll see Garcia, for us, utilized in both roles.
When you get down to a roster of 15, the value of players that can do multiple positions, the value of players that can hit and play defense expands itself even more. ... You don't have the luxury to go to Triple-A and bring somebody else up. You are what you are at that point. You have to have the right combinations to make it work. I go back to 2004 and you had Amanda Freed -- she could pitch, play infield, play outfield. Tairia Flowers could catch, play first, play third. Lisa Fernandez could pitch and play third and obviously wasn't a bad hitter.
Q: The roster doesn't seem to have many pure middle infielders. Is that a reflection of what you think of Ali Aguilar, Delaney Spaulding, Kelsey Stewart -- that you're comfortable with them playing most of the innings there?
Eriksen: The one thing people don't realize is Kasey Cooper can play second, short and third. She can play first, also. You've got one guy there that is multidimensional. Then Kelsey Stewart can play third, short and second; Aguilar can play second, short, third; and Spaulding second, short and third.
Everybody sees them in college and thinks, "That guy was a shortstop," or, "That guy was a third baseman." The nice part about opening up their perspectives when they get out of college is you get coaches that challenge them at other positions. You find out that at one time, like Cooper, she was the shortstop in high school or on her travel ball team. It makes it easier to do things like that.