Olympic softball returns: a look forward and a look back with Laura Berg
TOKYO – Thirteen years after the last Olympic softball game, the sport has returned to the Olympic program in Tokyo – and none too soon. On Wednesday, up at the diamond in Fukushima Azuma Stadium, CALIFORNIA's Valerie Arioto and OREGON's Janie Reed played a role in both runs of a 2-0 USA victory over Italy to begin the Olympic competition, two days before the Opening Ceremony.
On the sidelines was a bridge to softball’s past, present and future: U.S. assistant coach Laura Berg, who also works as head coach at OREGON STATE. She was an outfielder in every Olympic tournament prior to Wednesday’s re-installment, helping the U.S. capture three gold medals and a silver between 1996 and 2008. Her role now is to work with the U.S. outfielders in a number of areas, including their base running and short games in the box (bunting, slapping).
Whoever ultimately wins gold in Tokyo on July 27, however, will have to wait at least eight years for a chance to defend the title because softball will not appear in the next Olympics, in Paris in 2024. The International Olympic Committee’s on-and-off dance with the sport, Berg said, “is heartbreaking because all these young women could have had that [Olympic] experience [between 2008 and 2016] and it was taken away from them. So then we get in, everyone’s excited, and we get kicked out again. But I think we’re just trying to soak up the fact that we’re in it right now. We’re going to live in the moment.”
Softball is extremely popular in Japan, too, despite what the empty stands suggest. Before the Tokyo Olympics banned fans as a way to mitigate the spread of COVID, Berg said the current team drew 30,000 fans for a small tournament in the Tokyo Dome. Incidentally, the U.S. softball team was the first 2020 U.S. Olympic team to be named, on October 6, 2019. Eight of its 15 members are from Pac-12 programs and Berg was happy to give a scouting report.
Arioto, 32, whose fourth-inning run led to the U.S. victory over Italy, is “the kind of player everyone wants to be around,” Berg said. “She’s got a great sense of humor, very intelligent” despite a tendency to impersonate Cher singing “If I Could Turn Back Time” on the bus. Playing first base, Arioto also has “great power, hits the change-up very well. Just kind of keeps everyone cool, calm, and collected.”
Berg remembered Ali Aguilar, a WASHINGTON alum, as a shy high school player on the 2013 junior national team. Against Italy, she had three putouts on second base and a sacrifice bunt to set up Arioto's initial run. “I’ve watched her grow from that team to now,” she said. “Offensively, she’s just exploded. The kid has so much power – not just power to her power side. She’s got opposite-field power, which is fun to watch. Not a lot of hitters have that. She’s clutch.”
Ally Carda, 28, a former Bruin who did not suit up Wednesday’s round-robin game, “is one of the hardest workers I’ve seen,” Berg said. After helping the U.S. win gold at the 2016 world championships, Carda was on the 'B' team in 2018 and was an alternate at the 2019 Pan American Games. “She just worked her butt off to make this team,” Berg said – “to the point where they HAD to put her on the team. Plus, she’s like a Swiss Army knife. You can put her at first base, anywhere in the field – even the outfield. She can do whatever the team needs and is asked of her. She got herself in great shape and made sure could come up as a clutch hitter.”
Rachel Garcia, meanwhile, is super-steady. “Nothing fazes her,” Berg said. The UCLA product who pinch hit against Italy, “doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low. She’s the kind of kid who’s like, ‘Give me the ball and I’m gonna go out and win this ballgame.; She’s also like Ally – you can put her at first base, you can put her anywhere and she’ll get the job done. She’s an athlete.”
Although Dejah Mulipola didn’t catch for the team’s two Olympic veterans (Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott) in the opening game, Berg said the 23-year-old former Wildcat is “smooth catcher. She finds the ball well, receives it well, calls a great game, and she’s got a LOT of power.”
In contrast to the laid-back Mulipola, who has a subtle sense of humor, Berg said Bubba Nickles, 23, is “a NUT! She’s funny! When you hear the name Bubba, you think a 6-5 linebacker is gonna walk through the door. She’s this little thing [5-8] that can just put the ball 350 feet. She’s got power for her size. She can also play short, pitch, play outfield. At the Olympics, you only get 15 rosters spots, so you’ve got to have athletes who can play several positions. She’s one of those athletes.”
Janie Reed, left fielder, who played at Oregon “is one of the most solid outfielders I have seen in a really long time,” Berg said, giving high praise for the role she knows best. “She’s fundamentally sound in the way she throws the ball. She’s got good rotation on it so she gets a good bounce to her infielders at a base. Her footwork to ground balls and to fly balls – the way she comes in – she gets great jumps and takes great angles. I can’t say enough about her. She’s got speed, all the tools at the plate. She can bunt. She can run and slap. She can hit away for power. She can cause havoc on the bases. She’s got speed to where she can steal bases, so she puts a lot of pressure on the defense.”
Lastly, the U.S. starting shortstop Delaney Spaulding from UCLA “has one of the quickest releases I’ve ever seen in a shortstop,” Berg said. “She gets to the ball and there are times when I’m like, ‘Oh, the kid’s safe, and she just gets it and FIRES at first, and the kid is out by a LOT.” Despite tearing her right anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in February 2020, she returned in this past March and is still a power hitter, Berg said.
Together, Berg said, “They’re a great group, willing to work hard at whatever is asked of them. They’re unselfish and have a rare passion for the game.”
Next, the U.S. plays Canada (Thursday, July 22), followed by Mexico (July 24), and Australia (July 25). But perhaps the most anticipated game will be Monday, July 26, when the US faces Japan in a rematch of the 2008 Olympic grand final, where Japan denied the U.S. a gold-medal four-peat by claiming victory, 3-1, and spending the next 13 years as the defending champion.
Berg knows that Monday’s rematch will be huge for the two U.S. Olympic veterans on the roster. They’re her former teammates, and she expects the Japanese press to remind them of 2008 all week.
“Shoot, I’m reminded of it and I don’t even play anymore,” Berg said. “I remember it every day – that we didn’t win.
“I think these guys are ready for it.”