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.