USA Softball Olympic Wrap-Up: A Message of Hope
USA Softball’s 2008 Olympic story wasn’t a fairy tale ending nor did the team close the book with a ‘happily ever after.’ But despite the finish, the message in the end wasn’t about winning or losing, it was about ‘hoping for ever after.’
In 2005, the IOC made a decision that will forever affect the sport of softball. With the ’08 Games being the final hurrah, the U.S. certainly wanted to complete the ‘grand slam’ coming home with a fourth-consecutive gold medal. Fortunately they came home with a medal, but unfortunately it was not of the golden variety, but silver.
Dating back to September of 2007, the Women’s National team selected an 18-member roster to journey the country in preparation for competition in the 2008 Olympic Games. With training camps every month, the team worked to earn a spot on the 15-member roster that would compete in what would be for now softball’s last Olympic stand in Beijing.
With a February 19 start date, on the KFC Bound 4 Beijing tour, the journey began in Tucson, Arizona and stretched to every corner of the country. The Red, White and Blue reached the likes of Birmingham, Alabama and Stratford, Connecticut to Midland, Texas and Sacramento, California. With a 59-1 overall tour record, the U.S. was poised, confident, and prepared to begin the battle that awaited them in Beijing. Being three-time defending Olympic Gold Medalists, the target was on their back with seven other teams waiting in wings to steal the coveted gold medal.
With a week of practice in Beijing, the team was fortunate to experience one of the most celebrated and decorated Opening Ceremonies in Olympic history. To add, President George W. Bush made a special visit to practice that created memories to last a lifetime. He laughed with the team and encouraged them to keep doing what they were doing to inspire little girls across the country to be athletes and role models. He promised to them to help get the sport of softball back on the Olympic program.
On August 12, the U.S. met its first opponent in Olympic rookie team Venezuela. Pitcher Jennie Finch (La Mirada, Calif.) opened the Games in successful fashion with a record setting victory. The U.S. put up 11 runs for an Olympic record for most runs scored in a game while Finch and Monica Abbott (Salinas, Calif.) combined for a no-hitter. Olympic rookie Caitlin Lowe (Tustin, Calif.) led the U.S. effort with a 3-for-4 debut with one RBI coming on a solo inside the park home run.
Game two began the three-game gauntlet of facing its toughest opponents in Australia, Canada and Japan in as many days. Left-handed pitcher Cat Osterman (Houston, Texas) became just the second U.S. pitcher to ever toss an Olympic complete game no-hitter on August 13 with a 3-0 shutout over rival Australia. The south paw was almost perfect in the contest recording 13 strikeouts and allowing just three runners to reach base via the walk.
Next up was northern neighbor Canada, but Mother Nature won out as rain suspended the game in the fourth inning. With the U.S. trailing 1-0, play resumed against Canada the next day after the U.S. captured win No. 3 with a 7-0 five inning game against Japan. The U.S. used a four-run first inning attack en route to victory over Japan while connecting on eight hits including a new Olympic record with four home runs in the contest; two of which came from Jessica Mendoza (Camarillo, Calif.). From the circle, Abbott garnered her first Olympic victory tossing five complete innings allowing just one hit and retiring four batters via the strikeout.
The Canada game then resumed and the U.S. battled from behind coming up with an 8-1 win and improving to 4-0. Capitalizing on Canadian errors, the U.S. took the lead in the sixth and sealed the win in the seventh taking the game out of reach for the Canadians. From the circle, Osterman garnered the win as the U.S. would have three games remaining until the playoffs.
Riding an 18-game Olympic win streak dating back to 2000, the U.S. quickly extended the streak to 21 after three consecutive run-ahead rule victories. First was Chinese Taipei in a 7-0 five-inning triumph that saw Olympic newcomers Vicky Galindo (Union City, Calif.) and Lauren Lappin (Anaheim, Calif.) earn their first hits in their Olympic careers while veteran Finch earned her second win of the Games with a six-strikeout performance.
Then it was the Netherlands with an 8-0 five-inning victory where south paw Abbott recorded the first perfect game in Olympic history for a USA Softball athlete. She recorded nine strikeouts in the 15-batters faced and the U.S. used three home runs improving to 6-0.
Cruising right a long, the U.S. closed round-robin action with a 9-0 win over Olympic host China. Using a first inning nine-run rally, the U.S. secured the No. 1 seed in the playoffs for the second consecutive Olympic Games. Japan finished as the No. 2 seed with Australia at No. 3 and Canada landing at No. 4.
With a fourth-gold medal just two games away, the U.S. opened playoffs with a heart pumping 4-1 extra-inning win over Japan. Facing Japanese pitching ace Yukiko Ueno, who had defeated the U.S. on four occasions since the 2004 Games, the game displayed softball at its finest. The pitching of Abbott held off the Japanese through eight innings before the efforts of Lowe and power hitter Crystl Bustos (Canyon Country, Calif.) put four runs on the board in the top of the ninth to seal the victory. With the win, the U.S. would move to its fourth consecutive Olympic Gold Medal game.
And Japan again would be the opponent. Ueno and crew fought back through the bronze medal game with a 12-inning thriller against Australia who came away with the bronze as the Japanese advanced.
Facing Japan for the third time in six days, the game drew a crowd of over 8,000 as history was being made with what could be the final Olympic Gold Medal game for softball.
With Osterman in the circle, the U.S. came out strong in the gold medal game holding Japan through the first two innings before they struck first with a 1-0 lead in the third. Eri Yamada then drove an Osterman pitch over the fences for a home run and the 2-0 lead. A thirty-minute rain delay then halted play, but the U.S. quickly responded as home run leader Bustos put the game at 2-1 with one swing of the bat with a home run to left field. Continuing to play from behind, it just wasn’t in the cards for the U.S. as they left six runners stranded in the final innings before Japan added another run for the eventual 3-1 win.
Stunned with disbelief, the U.S. walked away with the silver medal as Japan captured its first Olympic Gold. With tears of sadness not only for the outcome but also the sport’s sendoff, the medal stand drew emotions for the U.S. players from deep within. Laura Berg (Santa Fe Springs, Calif.), Bustos, Kelly Kretschman (Indian Harbour Beach, Fla.), Tairia Flowers (Tucson, Ariz.) and Lovieanne Jung (Fountain Valley, Calif.) all left their cleats at home plate symbolizing an end to five outstanding USA Softball careers.
But as the tears began to dry and hugs contagiously spread, something happened on the field that night that was greater than a victory and more emotional than a defeat. The international softball world sent a message of hope. All three medal winning teams gathered together and spelled out “2016” in softballs just in front of home plate. The enemy lines disappeared and a chant of the words “Back Softball” emerged. Arm in arm, the softball world was uniting in a message to the IOC….and hoping for “happily ever after.”