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.

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.

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.