Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Softball team gunnin' for gold

Manitoba finishes round robin at 8-1

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Manitoba's Harrison Jones and Hunter Kristjansson race the men's double handed 29er event at the Canada Games Wednesday in Sherbrooke, Que.

JACQUES BOISSINOT / THE CANADIAN PRESS Enlarge Image

Manitoba's Harrison Jones and Hunter Kristjansson race the men's double handed 29er event at the Canada Games Wednesday in Sherbrooke, Que.

When the Canada Games softball round robin wrapped on Wednesday, Team Manitoba sat on top of the standings, a sparkly 8-1 record lighting the way.

It's the kind of start this team demanded of themselves, even as underdogs coming into the Games. Even as a team that usually finishes this tournament somewhere around fifth place, and hasn't medaled there since 1997. That one was a bronze.

Well, this time, Team Manitoba is hunting a brighter prize.

"We all want gold, and we all want it bad," said Stefanie Sheard, 18, who cracked three home runs in the round robin alone. "Our ultimate goal was to go 9-0, and that didn't happen. But that off-game did help us. We're gonna bring it now, because we don't want to feel like that again."

The team's motto, emblazoned on the back of their shirts, declares that "hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard," and so they arrived in Sherbrooke with healthy measures of both. The team is bolstered by a catcher, Hailey Unger, who made the national junior team, and by multi-faceted position player Sheard, and by bats throughout the lineup that have come up big, and by pitching that has shut opponents down.

The results speak for themselves: in the nine games of the round robin, Team Manitoba outscored its opponents by a staggering 73-16.

Even on that one loss, a tough Tuesday evening tilt against Quebec, the Manitobans only surrendered a single run. They're feeling the effects now, after cramming all that ball into only five days of the Games, but they brought their own ice baths from home, and are still hungry to play.

"It's a long week, and at this point everyone's hurting, but mentally they're very strong right now," coach Haylee O'Neill said. "We're very motivated to perform well."

So what accounts for this sudden surge of Manitoba softball then, this dominant performance from a team that usually finishes in the fifth-place range? O'Neill points to the changes in how Sport Manitoba prepares teams for the Games.

In 2011, the organization began to shift from a grant-funding model to a more integrated support system, as it looked ahead to hosting the 2017 Canada Games.

For the softball team, that has meant fresh opportunities to train. O'Neill sent the athletes to work at the Sport for Life Centre on Pacific Avenue with sport performance manager Adam Decker, at least thrice a week.

"He's done a fantastic job getting them in shape, getting them more agile," O'Neill said. "All the things we needed to do to compete with the big provinces. That's been huge for us."

There was also nutrition coaching, and some added funding, and the players even tuned up at hot yoga classes over the winter to prepare for Sherbrooke's thick heat, though a chilly first weekend of competition felt a little more familiar.

"I think our Manitoba summer prepared us better than the hot yoga for that part," O'Neill chuckled, although the weather in southern Quebec did turn warmer on Wednesday.

Now, all that's left is to seal the deal. The team was waiting on Wednesday to find out exactly how their seeding for the final round would go, pending the outcome of some evening games.

They will likely face either Ontario or Quebec at 5 p.m. CST today to battle for a chance to make the gold-medal game, slated for Friday at 2:30 CST.

Though the game plan may be the more or less the same whichever team they face, Sheard didn't hide the team's hunger for revenge.

"If we play Quebec, we're going to be going at it really hard," she said. "We want to face them again and show them that we are better and we can beat them."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 8, 2013 D2

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