Peter Walsh photo/Telegraph-Journal

Ready to take the field

by Scott Briggs - Friday, May 29, 2009

This article is courtesy of Telegraph-Journal

SAINT JOHN - Players with the New Brunswick's Canada Games girls fastpitch team are preparing to practise on a brisk night at a field on the city's west side.

Although the sun is bright and the sky is cloudless and blue, it's by no means warm. Then again, these players practised 30-40 hours a month indoors during the winter. So now that spring is here, there's no complaining or whining about the weather.

Instead, they loosen up by tossing medicine balls to each other, preparing for another workout that takes them one step closer to the Canada Games Aug. 15-29 on Prince Edward Island.

"Once we leave there, I want the fans to remember us for all the right reasons,'' New Brunswick head coach Bob LeBlanc said. "That includes a lot of things, like hustle and team chemistry.

"Although we'll be a lot younger in general than other teams, I don't want them to go there and take a backseat to anyone. I want each team we play to remember who they played against. ''

The process of becoming a tough opponent actually began this winter. LeBlanc conducted drills that emphasized fundamentals and then had the players execute "correct reps'' repeatedly.

"This winter our objective was to develop the best ballplayers we could so that once we hit the field, we could start working on strategies,'' the coach said. "You have to enjoy the ride, and part of the ride is working on specific things and seeing improvements made on those specific things.

"A lot of little things make up the big picture afterward. It's all to do with fundamentals.''

Eleven of LeBlanc's 15 players hail from the Saint John area, a source of pride for team manager Giuliano DeBortoli, who deals with everything from administrative matters to finance.

As a coach with the Saint John Selects, DeBortoli has also had a hand in developing many of the New Brunswick Canada Games players. And all but two are eligible to play for the Selects when they host the 2010 national midget fastball championship.

DeBortoli said the local players honed their skills in the Fundy Softball League, an orthodox circuit that stresses overall development. The loop's longtime president is John Jellison, whose efforts have earned him an induction into the Softball New Brunswick Hall of Fame.

"The Fundy Softball League has been great for the fielding and learning how to hit,'' DeBortoli said.

"Saint John and vicinity is the only area in Canada that still has orthodox in minor ball.''

This year, fastpitch will be allowed in the Fundy League, giving players exposure to what they'll face if they aspire to play at the Canada Games level or beyond.

To help players learn pitching fundamentals, DeBortoli started his own pitching school this past winter and enjoyed seeing the progress.

But when it came time to elevate the Canada Games hurlers, DeBortoli said the team benefited from the tutelage of LeBlanc and former men's fastpitch star Peter Briggs.

Two of the province's Canada Games pitchers in particular - Samantha DeBortoli of Saint John and Alecia O'Brien of Grand Bay-Westfield - have added a few extra miles to their respective fastballs through the extra work. Both have already been dominant in previous levels, so the two are counting on their increased efforts paying dividends at the Canada Games.

But no matter the player or position, Saint John's Justine Jarvis said work ethic is a team trademark of the Games squad.

"Everybody is willing to push each other,'' the 18-year-old outfielder said. "No matter where we finish, we know how hard we've worked and how hard we're going to be working in the next couple of months.

"I feel that we're learning stuff you can apply outside of softball, too. We've learned to play strong no matter what.''

Jarvis feels her teammates' previous sports experience is an important factor in the club's fate. And there's no better example than Alisha Sherwood, who won MVP honours for five sports at Simonds High School.

"Every girl here is an athlete,'' Jarvis said. "Every girl here plays basketball, hockey or some other sport.

"For them to be committed to what they were doing and also play these other sports and do well in school, it makes me really proud of them all. This obviously isn't going to be an easy journey for us, but we've all learned how to deal with outside factors and distractions.''

Meanwhile, the rest of New Brunswick's Games roster includes Nicole Barry (Rothesay), Ashley Lee (Saint John), Lori Graham (Grand Bay-Westfield), Alysha Rioux (Quispamsis), Rebecca Cyr (Saint John), Erin Freeze (Saint John), Katrina MacKinnon (Rothesay), Lynn King (Fredericton), Katie Carr (Rusagonis), Stephanie Marquis (Lameque) and Julie Chiasson (Lameque). The assistant coach is Alicia Porter of Fredericton.

jarvis.jpg - New Brunswicks Canada Games girls fastpitch softball team features a lot of talent from the Saint John area, including SJHS student Justine Jarvis. - Taken by Peter Walsh