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Little League Softball World Series provides field of dreams for Team Canada | CBC Sports

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Team Canada was knocked out of the Little League Softball World Series on Tuesday — but rest assured the players’ dreams are alive and well.

A squad from St. Albert, Alta., represented Canada at the international tournament in Greenville, N.C., having first won provincial and national playdowns to earn that honour.

The team of 12- and 13-year-old girls was eliminated after falling 11-9 to Latin America and 12-9 to New England. However, the trip south showed them what was possible through softball.

“I think they definitely dream,” said team manager Heather Danilak, a 40-year-old born in Edmonton. “They definitely see that softball can take them places and can let them travel and softball can let them meet many people across their lifetime.”

To that end, 60 players from Athletes Unlimited (AU), the professional women’s softball circuit, arrived at the World Series earlier this week and met with their younger counterparts on Tuesday. The AU players will compete in front of the Little Leaguers on Wednesday at Stallings Stadium.

Among those players is Toronto’s Victoria Hayward, who made her Team Canada debut at 16 and won Olympic bronze at Tokyo 2020.

“I didn’t have access to anyone like that when I was younger and I didn’t really even have the dreams. I didn’t really even know what the possibilities were,” Hayward told CBC Sports. “I wish that I had the opportunity to meet someone that was able to accomplish things I wanted to accomplish when I was young.”

Olympic question

Hayward, who spoke to Team Canada ahead of their loss to New England, said her message was to enjoy the experience and the pressure that comes with it.

“These are going to be memories that you have for the rest of your life coming here. And it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so the more you can enjoy it and just be present, have fun, compete, I think that there will be no regrets at the end of that experience,” she said.

Hayward, 31, has competed in AU since its inception in 2020. However, Tokyo 2020 was her lone Olympic experience after softball was left off the program for 13 years. Softball also won’t be contested at Paris 2024, though it could return for Los Angeles 2028.

Danilak, who competed in softball at the Canada Games and whose daughter Allie is on her team, said the Olympics are a worthy goal.

“A few of them I definitely see having Olympic dreams in terms of their focus and their intention and their determination on the field and in practice. They have the qualities to be little mini Olympians for sure right now,” she said.

Hayward pointed to AU’s success, as well as that of the Women’s College World Series, as part of her pitch for softball returning to the Olympics in five years.

“I think that the growth is exponential every year,” she said. “It’s diverse enough to make it something that I think should always be in, but definitely in Los Angeles as kind of the hub of softball in Southern California.”

A softball player throws a pitch as an opposing batter attempts to bunt.
Allie Danilak attempts a bunt during Canada’s loss to Latin America. (Submitted by Heather Danilak)

‘Somebody in this league plays like you’

In the meantime, AU and college softball are viable alternative for Little Leaguers to dream on.

“I think as much as it’s filling the gap, it’s also allowing players to compete at the highest level all the time. I think part of an Olympic experience is making sure that you’re prepared for that Olympic competition whenever it comes,” said Hayward, whose first AU season came in advance of Tokyo 2020.

The St. Albert team won its provincial playdown, beating out Lethbridge and Calgary, on July 24. Then it flew to Victoria, where it outlasted B.C. and an especially tough Quebec side to win the national championship. Three days later, thanks to flight delays, Danilak said it took nearly 24 hours to reach North Carolina, including a layover in Toronto and bus ride from Raleigh, N.C.

But even though they lost, on Wednesday the Little Leaguers will get to see their professional dream on display by their heroes at the same field on which they just played — something that may be well worth the whirlwind journey.

“It gives them another dream in their pocket,” Danilak said. “Another dream for them to reach and see that females can be professionals in athletics as well and that they have people to look up to all with similar pathway if they choose to do it.”

Hayward said she hopes her younger counterparts appreciate the diversity of the professional game — both in terms of style of play and the athletes on the field.

“No matter where you come from, no matter what you look like, no matter how you play the game, there’s somebody in this league that plays like you and someone that you can aspire to be like.”



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