After pitching her team to an NCAA conference title earlier this month, Sara Groenewegen is ready for a well-deserved break – but only a short one.
The South Surrey pitcher and White Rock Renegades alum is currently on a well-deserved hiatus from the softball diamond, having been afforded an extra week’s rest after her college season ended before having to report to Canada’s national team, which soon heads to California for a training camp.
With her university season in the books, the 21-year-old was set to join her Canadian teammates in California for a training camp on June 8, but considering her recent workload, national team head coach Mark Smith gave her an extra week to recuperate.
Earlier this month, the 21-year-old Groenewegen pitched every inning of every game at the NCAA’s Big Ten Championships, leading her University of Minnesota Golden Gophers to a second conference title in three years (see video below).
The last time they won, Groenewegen was a 19-year-old freshman who played a more limited role in the victory, which was a far cry from this year’s tournament, which was held May 12-14 at Penn State University.
In 24 innings over three games, she threw 395 pitches and struck out 29 batters, including 11 in the title game against Michigan, the No. 2 team in the country.
“I’m used to throwing quite a bit, but that was a lot more than normal. It wasn’t impossible though – I just took the reins and went with it,” she said.
Groenewegen was named MVP of the tournament – an award she can add to a list that includes All-Big Ten honours and a top-10 spot in the player-of-the-year awards.
The conference banner was also vindication for Groenewegen and her Minnesota teammates, after last years’ tournament in which they, as defending champs, were bounced in the first round by a lower-seeded team.
“That was really upsetting for us, so it was good to get back,” she said. “Our expectations were high and we knew it was definitely possible to win.”
Now with a third year of NCAA innings behind her, Groenewegen hopes the added big-game experience will help her further excel this summer with Team Canada, where she is expected to be a key piece of a pitching staff that will also feature the return of 37-year-old Lauren Bay-Regula of Trail.
“I watched her here (at Canada Cup tournaments) when I was a little girl growing up, so it’s really cool to get the chance to play with her now,” Groenewegen said.
After she meets up with her teammates later this month in the Golden State, the full squad will head across the Pacific to Japan for a number of tuneup games as well as Olympic promotion – the vote to potentially re-introduce softball and baseball into the 2020 Olympic Games is slated for August.
Groenewegen was just 10 years old when the sport was axed from the Olympic roster in 2005, and admits the idea that she could get the chance to be an Olympian four years from now is an enticing one.
“There’s a few of us (currently on the team) who would be in our mid-20s by then, so we’d maybe get a chance to play,” Groenewegen said.
In the meantime, Groenewegen is focusing on the 2016 Women’s World Softball Championships, which are set to be played in South Surrey July 15-24. The tournament will include 31 international teams, including two-time defending champion Japan, the United States, Australia and a slew of first-time competitors such as Uganda, Pakistan and Switzerland.
Groenewegen is used to playing on home soil – she’s played at the last few Canadian Open Fastpitch International Championships – and said the fact that this year’s tournament is a world championship won’t add to the pressure to success.
“I find that putting extra pressure on yourself never turns out very well, so I’m going to go into it like it’s any other tournament. But it is our home field, and we’re ready to win,” she said.
Groenewegen is certainly no stranger to big games – especially on friendly soil.
Last summer, at the Pan-Am Games in Toronto, she pitched a gem of a game in the championship final, leading Canada to an upset victory over the United States. Groenewegen pitched eight innings, striking out seven while allowing just one earned-run on six hits in the win.
That, coupled with her recent showing at the NCAA level, and it’s easy to understand why she isn’t too worried about any extra pressure to perform this summer.
“I’m just really excited – excited to be playing the biggest softball tournament in the world at Softball City,” she said.
“Having all this experience under my belt will definitely help me, especially in those big-pressure situations… whether it’s last year against Team USA at Pan-Ams, or Japan at the worlds two years ago.
“Having that experience, having home-field advantage, I think will be really awesome for us.”