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.

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.

York Lions alum Samantha Magalas makes history twice with Canadian women’s baseball team

One of the most influential, yet underrated elite female athletes of her generation, it is only fitting that Samantha Magalas is among a group of empowering women taking part in the inaugural women’s baseball tournament at the 2015 Pan Am Games. Adding to her legacy is the fact that the Pan Am Games allows Magalas to make history twice.

A charter member of the Canadian national women’s baseball team, she was part of a remarkable chapter in female sporting history as she participated in the inaugural IBAF Women’s World Cup. Contested in 2004 in Edmonton, Magalas would contribute to a bronze medal performance, the first of three podium finishes in her career. Along the way, she also accumulated three National Championships with Team Ontario.

Magalas (right) speaking with a coach during the Canadian National Women's Team tune-up tour for the 2015 Pan Am Games (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

Magalas (right) speaking with a coach during the Canadian National Women’s Team tune-up tour for the 2015 Pan Am Games (Photo credit: Mark Staffieri)

Considering that the Pan Am Games are being hosted in Toronto makes this an equally compelling aspect of female sport in Canada. It also allows Magalas the chance to make history twice in her career, as the Pan Am Games represents the first time that women’s baseball is part of a major multi-sport event.

Quite possibly the most accomplished female athlete in the history of Burlington’s Assumption Secondary School, Samantha Magalas earned top athlete honours twice. Such honors were complemented by being named the City of Burlington’s Athlete of the Year in 2002 and 2004, respectively.

A four-time qualifier in OFSAA for javelin, while excelling in basketball and hockey, she would move on to York University and compete for the Lions women’s ice hockey program. Competing as a forward for the program, she also spent one game as a goaltender, making 25 saves on 31 shots. It was also at York University that her athletic abilities would make national news.

Invited by head coach Colin Cummins to try out for the York University men’s varsity baseball squad, the result was historic. She would become the first woman in North American university sports to compete in men’s baseball, starting at first base in a game on September 10, 2004. Her ability to break gender barriers in sport was akin to Manon Rheaume in hockey, Dr. Jen Welter in tackle football and Devon Wills in lacrosse.

Such athletic prodigy also ran in her family. Of note, her brothers Nick and Sebastien also earned athlete-of-the-year honours at Assumption, following up their sterling careers as members of the Toronto Varsity Blues basketball team. Their proud athletic careers also served as a form of therapy for their brave mother Susan, who received chemotherapy, along with radiation treatments at Princess Margaret Hospital in her courageous fight against cancer.

Her cousin, Carly Agro was also the recipient of the athlete of the year award at Assumption, earning an NCAA soccer scholarship with UMBC in Baltimore. As a side note, Agro has also enjoyed an exceptional career in broadcasting, currently employed with Rogers Sportsnet.

Having played first base and platooned in the outfield with the Canadian national team, Magalas is currently a member of field manager Andre Lachance’s coaching staff. Also contributing as a first base coach, she is once again contributing to breaking gender barriers, as she is helping set a precedent for women to serve as coaches.

During her time as coach, her positive influence not only ensured that Canada’s baseball future would benefit from such a key figure, it would encourage another player to pursue her dreams. Pitcher Brittany Chan would earn a bronze medal with the Canadian contingent at the 2012 IBAF Women’s World Cup. A year later, she would follow it up by trying out for the Ryerson Rams’ men’s baseball varsity team.

Earning certification as a Provincial Coach under the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP), the first coaching experience for Magalas took place during an exhibition series in Cuba. Lachance allowed Magalas the opportunity to gain valuable experience when a group of 30 bantam aged girls from Canada competed against the national women’s team from Cuba. Since 2012, she has also worked as an instructor at the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Academy (along with national team members Autumn Mills and Ashley Stephenson).

The strong leadership skills have also been developed through her efforts off the field. In years past, she served as a general manager of Frozen Ropes, a training centre in the Greater Toronto Area focused on developing skills in both baseball and softball.

Currently a Sport Coordinator with Ontario University Athletics, Magalas is helping sport, both male and female, reach its potential in the province. Having started with OUA in 2010 as a Sport Development Officer, she worked tirelessly to inform high school athletes about the benefits of varsity sport at the university level in Ontario. Such topics included enlightening potential student-athletes on opportunities such as eligibility, recruitment, scholarships, and financial aid.

Overseeing the management of sport programming services, she is working towards building positive partnerships and developing a sport model that may serve as a template throughout the rest of Canada. It is that type of assiduous effort that has mirrored her remarkable athletic career. Setting a gold standard that helped inspire a generation of young women to grace the diamond and stake their rightful claim in a traditionally male-dominated game, the fact that Magalas is still involved in the game today only adds to its growing legend. Destined to be part of the game’s growing mythology, a gold medal at the Pan Am Games would cement her legacy as a Canadian sporting icon.

Alberta baseball hero Nicole Luchanski part of Pan Am Torch Relay festivities

One of the feel-good stories of the upcoming Pan Am Games in Toronto is the inclusion of women’s baseball on the athletic calendar for the first time. As host country Canada is a contender for the gold, a victorious outcome may be a coming out party for both the team and the sport, helping propel women’s baseball into the sporting conversation.

Adding to this magical time is second baseman Nicole Luchanski participating in the Pan Am Games Torch Relay. On July 3, which was Day 34 of the Torch Relay, she had the privilege of carrying the Torch during the Calgary Stampede Parade. She was joined by five other athletes during the Parade including wrestler Carol Huynh, women’s hockey competitor (and Calgary Inferno member) Haley Irwin, Canadian national wheelchair basketball member Kendra Ohama, gymnast Kyle Shewfelt and Pan Am medalist in diving, Cody Yano.

Raised in Edmonton, she is one of three Albertans that were named to the Canadian women’s baseball roster. Joining her shall be outfielder Kelsey Lalor (Red Deer) and pitcher Heidi Northcott (Rocky Mountain House). As a side note, all three contributed to Team Alberta’s 2014 victory at the Canadian nationals, marking the first time that the province claimed the gold medal at the Nationals. Taking into account that Edmonton was the host city for the inaugural Women’s World Cup of Baseball in 2004, it served as a source of inspiration for Luchanski, who was in attendance at the historic event.

Two years later, her own baseball dreams would come true, as she not only qualified for the national roster, but contributed to a bronze medal finish. Earning a silver medal at the 2008 edition of the World Cup, she was also the only player to hit a home run in 2012, another bronze medal result for Canada. Having played in five World Cups, one of her unique customs involves getting a photograph with teammate Amanda Asay, who both proudly hold a sign that says “Canada”.

Earning a Bachelor of Science in Forestry from the University of Alberta, she is also a volunteer instructor at the Baseball Alberta Girls Winter Camp, helping to inspire other players to follow in her empowering footsteps. As a side note, national team members such as Autumn Mills and Ashley Stephenson have worked as instructors for the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Academy.