Arizona Cardinals make history with empowering appointment of Dr. Jen Welter to coaching staff

In what has proven to be a banner year for women and coaching, the appointment of Dr. Jen Welter to the Arizona Cardinals coaching staff represents a tremendous milestone. While the NFL has seen women such as Amy Trask (Raiders) occupy a top executive position and Georgia Frontierre (Rams) and Serena Williams (Dolphins) take ownership roles, Welter is part of a new and exciting chapter.

Hired to serve in a coaching capacity during the Cardinals training camp and preseason, Welter, who earned her doctorate in sports psychology, shall work with inside linebackers. This follows a breakthrough season in which Welter was a member of the coaching staff for the Indoor Football League’s Texas Revolution.

During said season, the Revolution qualified for the league championship game. As a side note, Welter played for the Revolution in 2014, becoming the first female to play professional men’s football in a non-kicking role.

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Making history as the first woman in NFL annals to have the title of coach bestowed upon her, it builds on the momentum of some great coaching milestones for women. Former quarterback Kessie Stefanyk became the first female head coach in the history of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League.

Complementing Welter’s remarkable contributions in the Lone Star State was former WNBA superstar and Summer Games participant Becky Hammon. As a member of the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff, she became the first female coach in the history of the NBA. Like Hammon, Welter is also an accomplished athlete, having played for the WFA’s Dallas Diamonds, the IWFL’s Houston Dynamo and a two-time IFAF World champion with Team USA.

During the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League (in July 2015), she led the Spurs entry to a championship. As a side note, Nancy Lieberman (who once coached an NBA D-League men’s team in Texas) was part of the Sacramento Kings coaching staff during Summer League play.

Hired by Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, his courage and foresight certainly deserve to be applauded. Not only was he one of the first to discuss the concept in the media(during the Owners Meetings in March 2015), but it is part of what promises to be an empowering year for the NFL, as the league hired Sarah Thomas to be the first female official in league play.

Covered by a diverse range of media outlets, including world-famous Cosmopolitan’s website, Welter has received an outpouring of love and support on social media as well, including the NFL’s Twitter account. Among the individuals that have congratulated Welter, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey was gracious enough to mention her on Twitter, welcoming her to the state, testament to her growing impact.

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Sara Groenewegen leads the way towards softball gold medal in epic upset at Pan Am Games

Mirroring the Canadian men’s extra inning gold medal triumph in baseball at the Pan Am Games, Canada’s women accomplished the same heroics in softball. In both contests, Canada prevailed against a favored United States squad on home soil at President’s Choice Pan Am Park in Ajax, Ontario (east of Toronto).

Among a group of remarkable women that contributed to the gold medal win, pitcher Sara Groenewegen may have shined the brightest. Suffering from Type 1 Diabetes, she has not let her illness stand in the way of her chance at sporting glory. Known affectionately as the “Swaggin Wagon”, she tossed a complete game against the US, providing a performance that shall represent a remarkable chapter in Canadian sporting lore.

Adding to the magic of Canada’s softball victory is that it was the bridesmaid to the US in the last four consecutive gold medal matches in Pan Am play. Taking into account that the match was also held on the final day of the Pan Am Games, it was a remarkable way to end the event for host country Canada. The softball gold ensured that Canada had won a gold medal in every day of competition at the Games.

Defeating Puerto Rico by a 7-4 tally to advance to the gold medal game, tensions ran high for Canada as regulation play (consisting of seven innings) resulted in a scoreless tie. Nercous Canadians fans in attendance were hoping for a miracle, as gold would be Canada’s first in women’s softball since 1983.

Heading into extra innings, Canada scored four runs, placing the United States in a rare position where it was not in the lead. Considering that the US entered the gold medal with a 5-0 mark, including two victories against Canada, extra innings was not the anticipated outcome.

International rules state that each team begins with a base runner of choice at second base during extra innings. With Natalie Wideman’s fly ball lost in the sun by shortstop Kellie Fox, it placed two runners on base for Canada.

A single by Joey Lye, who was part of the silver medal winning team at the 2011 Pan Am Games, resulted in a 2-0 advantage, while Kaleigh Rafter was later intentionally walked to load the bases. Jennifer Salling’s sacrifice fly would stand as the game-winning (and gold medal clinching) RBI. Erika Polidori followed by extending Canada’s lead with an RBI single, as it provided Groenwegen with a four-run cushion to work with.

Despite the US scoring two runs in the bottom of the eighth, Groenwegen maintained her composure, providing a calming influence. Although there were runners on first and third, she struck out Sierra Romero to clinch the gold medal. On this momentous day, she allowed only six hits, issued three walks, while striking out six batters for the win that shall immortalize her as a Canadian female sporting legend.

As a side note, US pitcher Jaclyn Traina was credited with the loss. With the Canadian men’s team having also captured the gold medal in softball (a 2-1 triumph against Venezuela), it provides the host nation with a rare double gold.

Stacy Piagno delivers twice in historic gold medal run for US in women’s baseball at Pan Am Games

Although the United States were the gold medal favorites heading into the inaugural Women’s Baseball tournament at the 2015 Pan Am Games, the possibility of an upset at the hands of host country Canada was continuously lingering. After Canada captured the gold medal in men’s baseball, it only added to the pressure of a possible double gold for Canada.

While players such as second generation player Sarah Hudek, who won the first women’s baseball game in the history of the Pan Am Games, and Malaika Underwood, whose .600 batting average topped all players, emerged as legends in the aftermath of the Pan Am Games, one could make a strong argument that it was a coming-out party for Stacy Piagno.

On July 23, the fans in attendance at President’s Choice Pan Am Ballpark in Ajax, Ontario (east of Toronto) saw history as Piagno tossed the first no-hitter in women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games. A 9-0 win against Puerto Rico saw Piagno walk only one batter while striking out six in a performance for the ages.

An impressive all-around supporting performance by the US roster saw the squad collaborate in a seven-hit performance. Underwood led the US with two hits, while Tamara Holmes contributed a game-best two RBI’s.

Perhaps the most impressive stat was the 19 consecutive Puerto Rican batters that Piagno retired in order to win the game, striking out Yinoska Claudio in the final at-bat. In addition, the no-hitter clinched a spot in the gold medal game for the US.

Piagno would come up big once again in the gold medal game against host country Canada. Considering that Canada upset the US in the women’s gold medal game in softball, Piagno ensured that no such event repeated itself.

Although Hudek earned the start, contributing a game-high three RBI’s to help her own cause, Piagno’s presence provided a calming force. Despite a four-run first inning, the US lead was in jeopardy as Canada scored three runs in the top of the fourth.

Runs scored by Rebecca Hartley, Nicole Luchanski and Bradi Wall, three of the top producers throughout the Pan Am Games for Canada, were enough to warrant a pitching change. With only one out in the inning, the insertion of Piagno in the game proved to be the turning point of the game.

Allowing only two hits for the remainder of the game, any potential rally by Canada was quickly nullified. In the fifth, Hudek would contribute one of her three RBI’s, while catcher Anna Kimbrell (who also caught Piagno’s no-hitter) provided a double with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, demoralizing the Canadian side.

In shutting down the host Canadians, Piagno also contributed four strikeouts, topping all pitchers in the 11-3 win for the United States. Of all the pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched at the Pan Am Games, only Canada’s Autumn Mills (0.54) had an ERA that topped Piagno’s 1.80. As a side note, Piagno led all pitchers with 10 strikeouts. Establishing herself as a big-game pitcher, she may prove to be the factor in helping the United States capture a third IBAF Women’s World Cup title in 2016.

Ellie Black becomes Canada’s sweetheart with a memorable five medal performance at Pan Am Games

Although she was not a household name at the time, Ellie Black had already established herself as one to watch during the London 2012 Summer Games. Although she suffered a broken ankle during competition, she had gained the respect of many within the Canadian gymnastics team for her tenacity, as Black qualified for the Vault final.

Of note, her efforts contributed to a fifth-place finish in the women’s team final, the finest result ever attained in Summer Games play. Taking into account that the injury was sustained on a run down the mat, it was already part of an injury list that included a dislocated elbow and a broken thumb.

Three years later, a 19-year old Black has risen to the occasion. In every gymnastics competition at the 2015 Pan Am Games, Black has managed a podium finish. Reaching her remarkable potential, the outcome was three gold medals, along with a silver and bronze, respectively.

Competing at Ricoh Coliseum, home of the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies, Black earned gold medals in the women’s all-round, becoming the first Canadian to gain gold in this discipline since 1979. On her final day of competition, she would gain two more gold medals, the first on the beam, followed by the floor exercise.

Scoring 15.050 on the beam, adding to such a meaningful day was the fact that fellow Canadian Victoria-Kayen Woo qualified for the bronze medal. Her second gold medal was won by a much narrow margin, as her final score of 14.400 was two-tenths of a point better than silver medalist Amelia Hundley of the United States. After the victory, a jubilant Black graciously signed autographs to the young fans in attendance, certainly providing them with a lifetime of memories.

Attaining such unprecedented heights builds on her three medals attained last year at the Commonwealth Games (gold – beam, silver – vault, bronze – floor); along with becoming the first Canadian gymnast to earn a ninth-place finish at the 2014 FIG World Championships.

Becoming the first competitor at the 2015 Pan Am Games to win five medals, fellow gymnast Jossimar Calvo Moreno from Colombia would also reach the magical number. Of note, the Canadian record for most medals was actually set at the third-ever Pan Am Games, back in 1959. Shooter Gerald Ouellette attained nine medals.

Testament to her toughness is the fact that she has always managed to overcome injuries by maintaining a training regimen on the things she was able to work on. Such effort paid remarkable dividends at the Pan Am Games, making her a national sporting hero.

Hailing from Halifax, Nova Scotia, she was lured by many NCAA scholarship offers, but opted to stay close to home at Dalhousie University. Representing Dalhousie, she managed a podium finish at the 2013 Summer Unviersiade, earning silver on the floor and bronze on the beam, becoming the first Canadian female gymnast to do so since 1983. With the Rio Summer Games less than one year away, Black has certainly established herself as a gold medal favorite, possibly establishing herself as one of the finest Canadian female athletes for the second decade of this century.

Monica Abbott throws fourth perfect game in Chicago Bandits history

In a 10-0 blanking of the expansion Dallas Charge, Monica Abbott added to the remarkable pitching legacy of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) Chicago Bandits. Throwing the fourth perfect game in franchise history (just five days shy of her 30th birthday), along with her second as a member of the Bandits, she recorded 11 strikeouts as the Bandits improved to 23-10 on the season.

The fans at The Ballpark at Rosemont (the only ballpark built for a professional women’s team) have been spoiled by Abbott’s heroics for many seasons. Akin to quarterback Sami Grisafe’s legendary career in women’s football with the Chicago Force, and Elena Delle Donne’s growing popularity with the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, Abbott can lay claim to being part of the Windy City’s female sports icons.

Although Abbott, who is in her fifth season with the Bandits, was modest in proclaiming that she does not keep track of such statistical milestones, the reality was that Abbott was remarkably close on three separate occasions this season. Of note, she had thrown three complete game shutouts, in which she had allowed two hits or less during each win this season.

One of her two-hit shutouts was broadcast nationally on the CBS Sports Network, taking place against the Pennsylvania Rebellion on July 6. In addition, she enjoyed a complete game shutout against the Charge back on June 22.

With a season high crowd in attendance, it only added to the momentum. Successfully striking out the entire side in the first inning, the Bandits were dominant in the bottom half of the inning. Connecting off Charge pitcher Vanessa Stokes for four runs, the 4-0 lead only added to Abbott’s confidence. Megan Blank, who went 3-for-3 on the day, contributed the first RBI of the game, while catcher Taylor Edwards stroked a double that allowed two more runners to cross home plate.

A pair of Bandits experienced special milestones, as home runs were the prevailing theme. Kailee Cuico launched her first career home run with the franchise. Of note, she had been signed as a free agent after a release from the Akron Racers. Brenna Moss would hit a two-run home run, the first of her NPF career, making the score 10-0.

During the game’s aftermath, Abbott, whose ERA is down to 0.49, graciously signed autographs for the enthusiastic fans. Acknowledging the effort of Edwards in a post-game scrum, it was very heartwarming as it signified the first time that Edwards had caught a perfect game in NPF play. Of note, the first two perfect games thrown in Bandits history were accomplished by multiple Summer Games gold medalist Jennie Finch against Philadelphia on June 16, 2009 and Akron on July 9, 2010.

In between this memorable game, there was a bookend of events that made it a memorable week. The day prior, the Bandits had competed in a Battle of the Sexes game, while July 24 was a fundraiser for Cancer Awareness. Donning special edition jerseys to be auctioned off for charity, it only added to another great chapter in Bandits history.

Rosie MacLennan and Karen Coburn rise to the occasion with inspiring trampoline performances

Having been raised north of Toronto in nearby King City, part of the York Region district, the chance to compete in front of friends and family at the 2015 Pan Am Games was truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Rosie MacLennan. As Canada’s only gold medalist at the London 2012 Summer Games, MacLennan delivered again.

Capturing the gold medal at the Pan Am Games, the feeling of home court advantage was highly evident as the five-foot-two spitfire displayed why she earned the 2013 world championship in the highly exhilarating trampoline event. Entertaining the spectators at Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, while simultaneously impressing the judges, MacLennan earned a score of 53.560.

Recognition of an impressive performance that culminated with a gold medal featured the successful of triple somersaults twice. Although MacLennan successfully performed a trio of triple somersaults at the 2013 Worlds, it was still an effort that had the fans in attendance showering her with a senses shattering roar of applause.

Adding to such a memorable performance was the fact that MacLennan’s mentor and friend Karen Coburn joined her on the podium. Hailing from Stouffville (one of the municipalities in York Region), the mother of a two-year old daughter would garner the bronze medal.

Coburn’s ability to bounce back from a shattered ankle suffered eight months ago before the world championships in Daytona, Florida was a remarkable display of toughness and inspiration. Having won a medal for Canada at the sport’s debut at the Sydney 2000 Summer Games, along with two more in later Games, Coburn is highly worthy of the moniker “living legend” in her sport.

Factoring in that Coburn had to endure a steel plate and eight screws, such a gutsy display of character and perseverance was not lost on MacLennan. Of note, MacLennan nearly had her own Pan Am dreams taken away from her. Three weeks prior to the event, MacLennan over-rotated on a jump, suffering a mild concussion during training.

Considering that MacLennan also stumbled in the qualification session, the outcome could have been disastrous. Having won the gold medal at the 2011 Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, there was a strong feeling of redemption in getting the opportunity to defend her gold. As MacLennan had also participated in the first day of the 2015 Pan Am Games torch relay, this was an event very close to her heart.

Finishing with the silver medal was Mexico’s Dafne Loza Navarro with a score of 52.000. As a side note, Keegan Soehn captured the gold in the men’s trampoline, providing Canada with a rare double.

Highly anticipated women’s baseball match sees US go 4-0 with victory over host Canada at Pan Am Games

Quite possibly the most anticipated game in preliminary round play in women’s baseball at the 2015 Pan Am Games, undefeated powerhouses Canada and the US took to the diamond. Facing each other in the last game of the preliminaries, it also represented an exciting new chapter in their epic rivalry.

Host country Canada could feel the excitement of the energizing crowd at President’s Choice Pan Am Field in Ajax, Ontario, as they faced their American rivals for the first time at the Pan Am Games. Looking to win their first-ever medal in international play (the best finish for Canada was silver at the 2008 IBAF Women’s World Cup), the match against the United States would prove to be a litmus test of whether such golden dreams were attainable.

Although Puerto Rico and Venezuela cannot be taken for granted in the medal round, Canada and the United States have shown the ability to explode for power during preliminary play. Taking into account Canada’s ability to excel in later innings, as seen in the comeback win against Puerto Rico, a rematch with their American rivals in the gold medal game would not be unlikely.

As each squad already qualified for the medal round, the degree of pressure may not have been as intense but there were strong feelings of national pride for Canada and the US, as both wanted to prevail in this inaugural meeting. Regardless of the victor, neither would have to play each other in the opening match of medal round, allowing this to be an opportunity for adjustments while other roster members may garner playing time as a preparatory measure.

Gaining the start for Canada was Jessica Berube, while the United States countered with Marti Sementelli, who played men’s baseball at the NAIA level. Berube would surrender the initial hit of the night to first baseman Malaika Underwood, who once played volleyball at the NCAA level with North Carolina. Despite the hit allowed, Berube enjoyed a strong start, striking out leadoff hitter Jade Gortarez and designated hitter Tamara Holmes in the first.

Through her first three innings of work, Sementelli managed to keep Canada scoreless despite allowing four hits. Former Ivy League hockey player Amanda Asay and second baseman Nicole Luchanski logged hits, while catcher Stephanie Savoie and right fielder Jenna Flannigan were the other successful hitters. Ashley Stephenson (a member of the Laurier Golden Hawks Hall of Fame) was Sementelli’s only strikeout as the Canadian batters tested her often.

Although four US strikeouts followed for Berube (she would get left fielder Samantha Cobb to fan twice) in the second and third innings, she collapsed in the top of the fourth, allowing three hits and three runs. Tamara Holmes and second generation player Sarah Hudek, whose father John played in the major leagues, both got on base, eventually scoring. After Berube walked second baseman Jenna Marston, Michelle Snyder got a base hit, extending the American lead to a 3-0 advantage.

Despite Sementelli allowing three more hits, including a walk issued to 17-year old Kelsey Lalor, Canada was not able to chip away at the US lead. Berube managed to strikeout seven batters in 5.1 innings pitched, but the third inning proved to be the turning point. Replaced by Claire Eccles in the fifth inning, she was able to keep the US scoreless, despite walking a pair of batters.

Heading into the bottom of the seventh inning, Kelsie Whitmore was brought in to relieve Sementelli, but it did not yield a good result. Stephenson would get her second hit for Canada, as fans were hoping for a rally. Canadian manager Andre Lachance opted for some substitutions afterwards. Kate Psota, an 11-year veteran of the national team was inserted as a pinch hitter for Veronika Boyd. Getting a walk, Psota was replaced by 2014 NCAA Frozen Four champion Daniella Matteucci as a pinch runner.

With a runner in scoring position, Luchanski drove in Stephenson, reducing the US lead to a 3-1 count. The US opted to move Whitmore to right field, replacing her with Hudek on the mound. Striking out Stephanie Savoie, she successfully retired the side, becoming the first female pitcher in the history of Pan Am Games baseball to earn a win (in the opening game against Venezuela) and a save.

One area of encouragement for Canada was the fact that there were five members of the US roster (Gortarez, Cobb, Marston, Brittany Gomez and Anna Kimbrell) that went hitless. In addition, only two members of the US managed more than two putouts (Kimbrell -5, Underwood – 8), while Stephanie Savoie led all Canadian players with seven putouts.

The key stat that Canada has to improve on is the fact that they left seven runners on base. Should Vanessa Riopel or Heidi Northcott take the mound for Canada in a rematch with the United States, the outcome may be more favorable than the 3-1 loss in preliminary round play. For the Canadian team, it would be an opportunity to win double gold in baseball, an unprecedented accomplishment in Pan Am Games history, mirroring Canada’s double gold in ice hockey at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.