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Tough, steady competition prepping Canadian softball team for Olympic qualifiers

SURREY, B.C. — In the midst of a busy summer, it's hard for the Canadian softball team not to dwell on their ultimate goal — clinching a spot at next summer's Olympics.

The squad will play for a spot at the Tokyo 2020 Games in August but first they'll face two months full of high-level competition, including at the annual Canada Cup tournament this week and the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, later this month.

The closer the qualifiers gets, the harder it is to not look too far ahead, said infielder Jenn Salling, one of three Olympic veterans currently on the roster.

"But we've done a really good job as a group to have conversations about how day-by-day, each rep, each swing, each pitch, each everything is just more hay in the barn for the end and just keep that process-oriented mind," she said Tuesday before Canada kicked off competition at the Canada Cup in Surrey, B.C.

"Because as soon as you get too far ahead, you kind of lose sight of the moment. And one of our biggest things is just win the moment."

Historically, finding a steady stream of tough opponents has been a struggle for Team Canada.

Every year coach Mark Smith would find himself calling up other countries and asking if they wanted to play. Even if they said yes, a game actually happening wasn't always a guarantee, with competitors dropping out last minute.

Smith tackled the issue by moving his athletes to Marion, Ill., this year so the team could play in the National Fast Pitch league as the Canadian Wild.

"We really couldn't guarantee ourselves a competitive schedule that gave us day in, day out, this level of competition or preparation," he explained.

"It's given us just an incredible opportunity on a daily basis just to work on our skill sets and know that each night when we step on the field we're going to face competition that if we don't play well are more than capable of sending us home unhappy."

With a 16-13 record, the Canadians currently sit third in the league, and outfielder Jennifer Gilbert dominates the offensive leader board. The 27-year-old Saskatoon native leads the NPF in home runs (four), doubles (seven), runs batted in (24) and hits (31).

Pitcher Danielle Lawrie had already spent four years playing in the league before the Canadian Wild started up, and she knew this season would be a grind. But she also knew it would hold valuable lessons for the entire Canadian squad and prepare them both physically and mentally for the Olympic qualifiers.

League play has helped teach the team how to control their emotions, Lawrie said.

"I've gone out and I've pitched and I've sucked. I've given up six runs in a game. And it's like 'Okay, remember and keep in perspective what we're trying to do,' " she said. ’"Yeah, we want to win every game, but it's like what can I learn to have success moving forward. And we are going to be so much better because of playing in this league."

Other countries, including the U.S. and Mexico, also use the NPF as a training ground which can impact how the Canadians play.

"Sometimes I hold back my change up because I don't want them to see it," Lawrie said. "So you're always just kind of evolving as a player."

This week, the native of Langley, B.C., is returning to her roots at the Canada Cup. Lawrie said the tournament is her favourite because there are always people around who've watched her entire career develop.

"It just gives you all the hometown feels," she said.

The tournament isn't the only event being held at the suburban Vancouver park this summer. The Olympic qualifiers will also be played in Surrey at the end of August.

That means Team Canada will get an edge, playing in front of a home crowd, in a climate and venue they're comfortable with, Smith said.

"You want every advantage you can get when you're competing on a world stage," the coach said.

Playing on home soil always adds "fuel to our fire," said Salling, adding that the group definitely got a boost from the crowd when they played at the 2015 PanAm games in Toronto.

Team Canada captured gold in the tournament.

"The most bonkers I've ever seen our fans is in 2015," Salling said. "And that was the coolest thing I've ever experienced in my life, being part of this team. So we're excited to do that again here."

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press