Stephanie Savoie setting the standard as one of the world’s finest baseball catchers

Following a remarkable performance at 2015 edition of the Pan Am Games, there is no question that Stephanie Savoie has established herself as the world’s finest at her position. Competing as the starting catcher for the Canadian national women’s baseball team, she was one of the most consistent performers in a silver medal outcome.

Hailing from Drummondville, Quebec, she was one of three Quebec-born players on the Canadian roster at the Games. Joined by pitchers Jessica Berube and Vanessa Riopel, the three have also been teammates for Team Quebec at the Canadian Senior Women’s National Invitation.

Having first suited up for the national team in 2007, she enjoyed a silver medal at the 2008 IBAF Women’s World Cup. Recognized as Team Canada’s Most Valuable Player in 2014, in which Savoie was also a finalist for the Tip O’Neill Award (recognizing Canada’s baseball player of the year), she has blossomed into an exceptional talent.

A vocal leader, able to encourage while setting a positive example highlighted by her strong work ethic, Savoie is one of the most important members of Canada’s roster. Acknowledging that the role of the catcher results in serving as a leader, she also enjoys the mental and strategic aspects of baseball, in which she shines as a defensive player. Occasionally showing flashes of power at the plate (she hit .520 at the 2012 IBAF World Cup), Savoie’s team-first approach provides a solid presence for a Canadian team that ranks fourth among the world’s competing women’s baseball teams.

Competing in all six of Canada’s contests at the Games, she ranked second only to second baseman Nicole Luchanski in at-bats with 21. In addition, she was one of only four Canadian competitors to log an extra base hit. Her .286 batting average was complemented by six hits and two runs.

Statistically, Savoie led all Canadian catchers in putouts at the Pan Am Games, contributing to the team’s solid .935 fielding percentage, while topping all catchers in Games competition with 8 base runners caught stealing. This improves on her impressive total of 6 base runners caught stealing at the 2014 IBAF World Cup, which also topped all catchers.

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.

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.

Two-run sixth inning part of Canadian comeback against Puerto Rico in third day of women’s baseball at Pan Am Games

Through the first two innings of play, Puerto Rican pitcher Maria Zayas was hurling no-hit ball. Although no Canadian batter had struck out, she was able to stifle their high-powered offense, one which obliterated Cuba and Venezuela during the first two historic days of women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games.

Getting the start for Canada was two-sport star Kate Psota. One of five members of the Canadian roster who also played elite university hockey, Psota allowed four hits and two earned runs in the first two innings of play.

Leading off for Puerto Rico was left fielder Luz D. Feliciano, stroking a single. It would set the tone early on as right fielder Kiara J. Irizarry drove her in, as Puerto Rico enjoyed the first lead of the game. Before the first inning would expire, first baseman Yinoska Claudio also contributed an RBI, extending said lead.

Psota would settle in the second inning, allowing just one hit to second baseman Katiria Davila. Complemented by a first inning strikeout, Psota demonstrated good control on the mound, considering that she had not yet walked one batter through two innings.

Despite the progress, manager Andre Lachance opted for a pitching change in the third inning. Bringing Melissa Armstrong, she kept Puerto Rico scoreless for three innings. Although Yinoska Claudio managed two hits off her, the Puerto Ricans could not bring her in to score. Armstrong would tally three strikeouts, providing Canada with the chance to comeback.

In the bottom of the third, Canada showed signs of life, breaking the shutout. With Jennifer Gilroy on the basepads, 11-year national team veteran (and former CWHL player) Ashley Stephenson drove her in, logging her first RBI in Pan Am Games play.

After both sides went scoreless during the fourth and fifth innings, Canada took control in the sixth inning. With Melissa Armstrong shutting down the Puerto Rican bats with a six strikeout performance, the Canadians came roaring back to life with a dramatic comeback. Jennifer Gilroy continue to be a factor in the game, as she and Veronika Boyd were on base. With Nicole Luchanski at the plate, she continued her MVP-like performance during the Pan Am Games, bringing them both in on a two-RBI hit.

With Canada claiming its first lead of the game, Puerto Rico opted for a pitching change as Zayas was replaced by shortstop Adrix Y. Paradizo. As a side note, Puerto Rico would make four other positional changes in the inning, shuffling its outfield and bringing in Marleen Gomez as a designated hitter. Despite allowing Canada’s seventh hit, Paradizo was able to prevent any further runs from being scored.

Looking to preserve the lead, Amanda Asay (who played hockey at Brown and the University of British Columbia) took to the mound for her first relief appearance in the Pan Am Games. Although Asay would allow two hits, she would successfully retire the side, as Canada improved to an impressive 3-0 mark.

Five-run first inning propels Canada past Venezuela in Pan Am Games baseball

A five-run first inning would prove to be all that Canada needed as they defeated Venezuela by a 9-3 count. Runs by Nicole Luchanski, Bradi Wall, Amanda Asay, Kelsey Lalor and Jenna Flannigan shattered Venezuela’s confidence. After facing a defeat the day prior against the United States in the first-ever women’s baseball match at the Pan Am Games, Venezuela was hoping to rebound.
Dayvis Cazorla was pulled out of the game in the first inning after allowing four earned runs. Replaced by Esquia Rengel, she would allow one more run in a difficult start for Venezuela.

Former York Lions women’s ice hockey player Autumn Mills showed her versatility with a sterling performance on the mound. Equally adept at playing third base, Mills was part of Canada’s starting rotation at the Pan Am Games. Through three innings, she only allowed one hit, as centerfielder Leona Reyes was the only Venezuelan player to successfully connect off her.

After four consecutive scoreless innings, Canada added to their lead by placing another two runs on the scoreboard. Venezuela would reply by scoring two of their own runs in the bottom of the sixth. Ingrid Escobar, Migreily Angulo and Daily Gimenez would each get hits in the sixth, reducing Canada’s lead.

With Canada facing Lelis Gomez, they extended their lead to seven runs once again with another two-run performance in the seventh inning. Jessica Berube closed out the game for Canada with a relief appearance.

Second baseman Nicole Luchanski would earn two base on balls, becoming the first Canadian to walk twice in Pan Am Games baseball. She would also contribute a solid defensive performance along with RBI’s in the sixth and seventh innings, respectively. In addition, Bradi Wall registered a pair of RBI’s in the game.

Jennifer Gilroy showed why she is a key part of the future for the Canadian women’s team with a remarkable three-RBI performance, complemented by a game-high nine putouts. Except for Veronika Boyd, every other member of the Canadian starting lineup logged at least one hit. Mills registered three strikeouts over six innings pitched while allowing only two earned runs.

Canada and Cuba collide during inaugural day of women’s baseball competition at Pan Am Games

With Canada having won a gold medal in men’s baseball at the Pan Am Games, the Canadian women are aspiring towards a unique and unprecedented double gold. On the road towards such ambitions, host country Canada took to the mound against Cuba. French-Canadian hurler Vanessa Riopel (who has gained celebrity status for her role in a TV advertisement for Maytag) gained the start, while Yanet Cruz was named by Cuba as its starter. Considered one of the aces of Canada’s pitching staff; expect Riopel to gain the start should Canada qualify for the gold medal game.

During the first inning, Dayanna Batista would become Riopel’s first strikeout victim, as the prevailing theme on this day was historic firsts. One inning later, Kelsey Lalor experienced her own brush with history as she became the first Canadian batter to strike out. As a side note, Lalor made a remarkable diving catch in the first, preventing Cuban player Odrisleisis Peguero of an extra-base hit.

Through the first two innings of play, Riopel only allowed one hit as Yurismary Baez connected off her. In so doing, Baez became the first Cuban to earn a hit in women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games. Duplicating such a historic feat for Canada was second baseman Nicole Luchanski. Taking Canada’s first-ever at-bat, she would later record a hit in the third inning, providing the home team with their first of the game.

As a side note, the growing awareness of the national women’s baseball team has resulted in a surge of support. From inspirational speeches by former Canadian female athletes such as Waneek Horn-Miller and Carolyn Waldo, the team was also introduced prior to a Toronto Blue Jays home game at Rogers Centre. In addition, Justine Siegal, chair of the International Baseball Federation’s women’s commission is on-hand during the Pan Am Games to witness history in the making.

The first run of the game would be scored in the top of the third inning as Canada enjoyed the first lead. After adding another run in the fourth, Cuba faced a two-run deficit, struggling to assemble any offensive attack at the plate.

Canadian manager Andre Lachance opted to pull Riopel out of the game in the fifth inning. Her pitching line included 4.2 innings, allowing only two hits, walking two and recording a pair of strikeouts. She would also be credited with Canada’s first-ever win in women’s baseball at the Pan Am Games. Making a relief appearance was second generation pitcher Heidi Northcott, allowing Cuba’s first run of the game as shortstop Mayumis Solano broke the shutout bid.

Heading into the sixth inning, Canada pounded the opposing Cubans with an eight run performance, putting the game out of reach with a 10-1 lead. Cruz would be replaced by Ana Castellanos, who allowed four earned runs and walked two Canadian batters. Yoidania Castro became the third Cuban pitcher of the inning, attempting to curb the Canadian onslaught.

A bloop single by Ashley Stephenson loaded the bases early in the sixth. Lachance would also make substitutions in the sixth providing others with an opportunity to play. Of note, Rebecca Hartley would pinch hit for Veronica Boyd, who was hitless in the game. After getting an RBI-single to make the lead 3-0, Hartley was replaced by Autumn Mills, who assumed a pinch runner’s role.
Of note, Mills would eventually score a run, as Luchanski contributed an RBI single, adding to Canada’s expanding lead. Mills will also be Canada’s starting pitcher in their second game against Venezuela.

Bradi Wall, who logged Canada’s first RBI in Pan Am play during the third inning, would add a double to centre, allowing three runs to score. Subsequently, Lalor reached base on a fielder’s choice as another run scored. Jenna Flannigan would contribute two RBI’s in the inning as the game suddenly became out of reach for Cuba.

In the seventh inning, 11-year veteran Kate Psota pinch hit for Jennifer Gilroy, who also went hitless. Before the inning would expire, Canada added three more runs in the seventh inning as Amanda Asay, Katherine Psota and Flannigan all contributed with RBI singles to extend their lead to a 13-1 margin.

Although Cuba provided a valiant effort, allowing only two runs through five innings, their own struggles at the plate were compounded by four errors in the game.
Statistically, Bradi Wall assembled the best hitting performance of the day with a pair of hits and a game-best four RBI’s. Four players would record two hits in the game, while five players would each score two runs. The only players to accomplish both were Luchanski, Wall and catcher Stephanie Savoie. Along with Jennifer Gilroy, Savoie would also record four putouts. The only member of the Cuban roster to register four putouts was Solano. In between competition, the women’s team plays against top-level teenage boys’ teams from Toronto.

Remarkable Vanessa Riopel looking for victorious outcome at Pan Am Games

After Pete Orr’s heroics helped Canada capture the gold medal in men’s baseball at the 2015 Pan Am Games, the women of the Canadian contingent are certainly hoping to emulate such efforts, which would result in an unprecedented double gold. It would come as no surprise if such an outcome resulted in Vanessa Riopel pitching on the mound.

A highly accomplished pitcher who wants the ball in high pressure situations, a possible ace in the hole may lie in elite catcher Stephanie Savoie. Having both grown up in Quebec, the two are longtime teammates on the provincial team. Such a rapport allows them a remarkable advantage against the four other competing nations in the inaugural women’s baseball tournament at the Pan Am Games.

Left to right: Canadian stars Autumn Mills, Riopel, Meagen Cornelssen and Kate Psota in Australia (Image obtained from: http://www.ibaf.org/)

Left to right: Canadian stars Autumn Mills, Riopel, Meagen Cornelssen and Kate Psota in Australia (Image obtained from: http://www.ibaf.org/)

Considered one of the aces of the pitching staff by Team Canada manager Andre Lachance, it places Vanessa Riopel in the position of role model for the younger players on the roster. As women’s baseball in Canada is poised to grow in the similar fashion that women’s hockey expanded after the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Riopel’s road to the national team is one of its most heart-warming stories.

Although the language barrier was the most difficult aspect of adjusting to national team play (it also led to struggles during her first few months of play in Australia), the most admirable quality of Riopel goes beyond the determination to learn English. Having spent part of her infancy in a cast due to a club foot, her ability to compete in an able-bodied sport such as baseball has shown the potential of sport as a way to build confidence and self-esteem.

Despite the fact that her left foot is close to two sizes smaller than the right, it has not prevented her from achieving her sporting dreams. Although the club foot may result in being perceived as disabled, Riopel is truly able to empower, proving that obstacles can be overcome. Experiencing no discomfort on the mound, the affected foot may experience slight fatigue. A key source of inspiration for Riopel is the fact that American soccer legend Mia Hamm was also born with a club foot. Riopel hopes to emulate Hamm’s championship success by helping Canada capture its first gold medal in international women’s baseball.

Photo credit: Canadian Olympic Committee

Photo credit: Canadian Olympic Committee

As the 2015 edition of the Pan Am Games marks the first time that women’s baseball is being contested in a major multi-national tournament, Riopel’s brush with sporting history is one that may serve as the defining moment of her career. Should Riopel and her teammates capture the first-ever gold medal, it may result in becoming “Canada’s sweethearts”, akin to what Canada’s women’s soccer team experienced in the aftermath of the London 2012 Summer Games with its emotional bronze medal performance.

Like so many of her teammates, she is forced to play in a men’s league in order to prepare for international play. Despite the frustration that comes with the fact that a professional league for women is non-existent, the access to competing with male opponents provides a faster pace of play, sharpening Riopel’s skills.

Friendly yet elegeant, Riopel’s sporting superstition is the need to always travel with a curling iron as pristine hair is a must when she takes to the mound. Along with triathletes Paula Findlay and Kyle Jones, Riopel was one of three Canadian athletes sponsored by Maytag heading into the Pan Am Games. Such an endorsement is likely the first of many to come, as Riopel is poised to become a rising star in the Canadian sporting conversation.

Riopel in a "Performance Counts" advertisement for Maytag (Obtained from: http://performancecounts.maytag.ca/)

Riopel in a “Performance Counts” advertisement for Maytag (Obtained from: http://performancecounts.maytag.ca/)

Employing bravura, she is eager to pitch against top ranked opponents such as Japan and the United States. Very analytical, Riopel acknowledges that different approaches to the game are required against such opponents. Of note, Japan prefers to bunt and play a more defensive minded game whereas the rival United States utilizes more of a power game.

Adding to the essence of Riopel’s pitching performances is the presence of a familiar face (and friend) behind the plate. Teammates for a decade, catcher Stephane Savoie is the perfect person behind the plate. As the relationship between pitcher and catcher may be one of the most important in sport, their rapport leads to a winning combination.

Riopel and Stephanie Savoie are definitely the two faces of baseball for women in Quebec. Their friendship and success is akin to Marie-Philip Poulin and Caroline Ouellette in women’s hockey. Each an ambassador for their respective sport, they are destined to become French-Canadian female sports immortals.

In action with Les Seigneurs de Repentigny, 2012 (Image obtained from: www.jacqueslanciault.com)

In action with Les Seigneurs de Repentigny, 2012 (Image obtained from: http://www.jacqueslanciault.com)

Having graduated from Sherbrooke University in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, she has ambitions to eventually teach physical and health education. Should Riopel achieve her dreams of becoming an educator, it would also make her an ideal candidate to become a baseball coach. As former teammate Samantha Magalas is part of the Canadian coaching staff for the national women’s team, a remarkable individual such as Riopel, compassionate yet courageous, could build on her storied legacy, while expanding the role of women in coaching.