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Thursday, July 12, 2012
U.S. has its hands full at world championship

By Graham Hays

Keilani Ricketts
Pitcher Keilani Ricketts accepts high-fives from her teammates after leading the U.S. in the 2012 World Cup of Softball.

Softball had a short stay in the Olympics, debuting in Atlanta in 1996 and losing its place in the program after Beijing in 2008, but the ISF World Championship dates back to 1965. Following a five-year break between the first and second tournaments, the event took place every four years between 1970 and 2010. This year's tournament in Whitehorse, Yukon, is the first in a new two-year cycle intended to make up for the sport's Olympic exclusion.

The United States finished second in the first two world championships, losing out to Australia in 1965 and Japan in 1970, but Team USA has failed to win gold once since then. The dominance includes seven consecutive titles, with two coming in the United States (which last hosted the event in 1990). American teams own a 116-10 record in the world championship, with the last loss coming against Japan in 2006.

The field of 16 teams in Whitehorse is divided into two pools of eight teams. Beginning ]July 13, each team will play every other team in its pool once. The top four finishers in each pool advance to a double-elimination medal round (weighted toward the top two finishers in each pool) that concludes with the championship game July 22.

Only outfielder Kaitlin Cochran and catcher Ashley Holcombe have prior world championship experience for Team USA, and no players with Olympic experience remain, but the current team won the 2011 Pan Am Games, in addition to the 2011 and 2012 editions of the six-team World Cup of Softball. Coach Ken Eriksen built this team along familiar lines for American sides, with triple-threat speed at the top of the order (Michelle Moultrie and Rhea Taylor), patient all-around hitters with power in the middle (Cochran, Stacy May-Johnson, Val Arioto) and deep pitching (Keilani Ricketts, Jordan Taylor, Chelsea Thomas, Jackie Traina). Eriksen rarely asks any of his pitchers to go seven innings.

Despite its youth, this team is capable of making it eight championships in a row for the United States, but it doesn't have either of the two arguably most recognizable pitchers in the field -- Yukiko Ueno from Japan and Danielle Lawrie from Canada -- so Team USA isn't a lock.

Japan: Although it last won the world championship in 1970 on home soil, Japan deserves at least co-favorite status in Whitehorse. There has been some roster turnover since the stunning win against the United States in the 2008 Olympics, but experience is an asset. Ueno, the hard thrower who beat the Americans in that gold-medal game in Beijing, remains in the picture, although she appeared just twice in eight games in the recent Canadian Open. Outfielder Eri Yamada, shortstop Rei Nishiyama and catcher Yukiyo Mine also return from the 2008 team, while most of the rest of the lineup played in the 2010 world championship. Coming off a 9-4 win against the United States in extra innings in the final of the Canadian Open, Japan is 4-3 against its rival since 2011.

Canada: This is the third opportunity for Canada to host the tournament, and it's likely the nation's best opportunity to win gold. While the Canadian team has been up and down so far this summer, it will get a major boost from the addition of National Pro Fastpitch standouts Lawrie, Jenn Salling and Caitlin Lever in Whitehorse. Added to a core that already includes former Georgia Tech All-American second baseman Jen Yee and Syracuse pitcher Jenna Caira, who beat the United States last summer in the World Cup, the NPF stars make Canada a serious contender.

Rest of the field: Australia lacks the top-end talent of the top three teams, but it's solid enough in all facets to beat any of them on a given day. Wins from the rest of the field against the top contenders would be more surprising. A surprise standout as host in 2010, Venezuela pushed the United States to extra innings in the recent Canadian Open. The Netherlands played well in this year's World Cup, beating Canada and losing to the United States by a run in finishing the event with a 3-3 record. China has played little in North America the past few years, but it finished fourth in 2010 and still has some of the infrastructure from the 2008 Olympic buildup.