Sixteen teams from around the globe hop into action this Friday at the Women’s Softball World Championship in the Netherlands, where Botswana remains the only nation to represent the African continent. The fastpitch softball tournament has always seen the local women return empty-handed although this time both the players and their technical team have vowed to claim the scalps of a few who have narrowly beaten them before.
Botswana’s women first participated at the tournament in 1994, but would then miss out on the subsequent editions of 1998 and 2002 only to make a return for the 2006 and 2010 games. It has never been an easy tournament for the locals, almost all of the time returning from the championship without a single victory. But team captain Tshepo Letsholo – speaking on behalf of her teammates - has this time put her head on the block, convinced that they will win some games this time around.
“We have a better squad with good balance than I have seen before, and I believe with the experience we have from before, we go into this year’s games knowing exactly what we are up against,” Letsholo told BG Sport. Botswana are drawn into a pool that will see them play Great Britain, USA, Dominican Republic, Italy, Chinese Taipei, Australia and hosts Netherlands in that order. At 2pm this Friday, the local women take on a manageable side in Great Britain who like Botswana, only started participating at the games in 1994 and have also appeared four times. Great Britain, arguably the weakest opponents in the group, present an opportunity for Botswana to get their campaign off to a good start. Like Botswana, the British have always lost out at the group stages, and on Monday this week, they were humiliated 16-1 by defending champions Japan in one of their preparatory matches for the tournament.
What will surely count as Botswana’s toughest game of the tournament however, is at 12:30pm on Saturday – against 10-time winners USA. For seven editions in a row since 1986, the USA have won gold, and only lost 2-1 to Japan in the last championship’s final to claim silver. On Sunday morning and on Monday, Botswana will then take on another manageable pair of Dominican Republic and Italy respectively. Yet all these nations are ranked higher, but perhaps represent the lot that Letsholo and her coach Bobby Khupe believe will be their victims. Letsholo said: “We have faced them before and we know them. We are targeting especially those we feel beat us with narrow margins. In all, we should be able to beat three.” Interestingly, the last time Botswana played Dominican Republic in 2010, the locals were beaten 5-0, one of the better score margins recorded against Botswana then.
The 2010 tournament in total saw Botswana concede 71 runs in the seven group matches they all lost, while they only managed to score 5.
Only four wins from the round-robin group will see them proceed to the playoff round, and anything less will see them return to Botswana to watch the rest of the tournament on television. But, as suggested by Coach and Captain, that will be setting their target too far. “Our aim really is to improve our rankings. Going beyond the group stages cannot be easy given our level of participation in the game. Those countries play softball full time; they have international competitions they participate in all year round and here we do not have that luxury,” the team’s coach Khupe told BG Sport. He added he had the confidence that his charges will perform better than ever before looking at the youthful squad that he has.
“The majority of the players are young and agile, they were at the world youth championships and with the few who have experience of the senior tournament, we should be able to pull some surprises,” the coach said. Only four players in the team have played at the world softball championships before. Letsholo and Keabetswe Mhotsha were at the 2006 games in Venezuela while Malebogo Ramaphane and Melita Seabelo played at the 2010 edition in China.
The other 13 players in the squad are from the Under 19 team that played in Canada last year.
Sad to note is the fact that during the course of their preparations that began late in May, the team lost three players with the necessary experience to see them through to their target of three victories. Batting sensation Lebopo Otlhomile had to drop off after sustaining a wrist injury while playing for her club Dinare at the recent Selebi-Phikwe Softball Extravaganza, and the other two players dropped on maternity grounds.
“We always had a back-up plan as you will recall that the squad started from 53 players who were trimmed with time until we reached the final 17,” Khupe said. The softball team was expected to play three international friendly matches against Cuba, Puerto Rico and Czech Republic while in Harlem to prepare for their group matches.
Ahead of the tournament until they left, the Botswana team never had any competitive matches for their preparations except to play against a mix of some local clubs which they easily overcame.