Slovenia 2006

By 2006, GB Head Coach Gary Crock had stepped down and the first GB player ever to make the move to the Head Coach position, Mark Saunders, took over – with brother Bruce as Assistant Coach. For many long months, it seemed that the 2006 European Slowpitch Championship might not happen at all because no country had stepped forward as host. But then the small ex-Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia contacted the ESF to ask for help with Slowpitch development, and Bob Fromer, who holds the Slowpitch brief as a member of the ESF Development Commission, responded with a range of suggestions and a question: “Er … by the way, would you be interested in hosting a European Slowpitch tournament?” The rest is history, as Slovenia, with the help of a £2000 grant from the ESF via BSUK, proved to be excellent hosts in the last week of August in the country’s capital, Ljubljana. And two new countries – Slovenia and neighbouring Croatia – joined the competition, raising the total of competitors this time to five (though Austria dropped out and was missed and Israel once again signed up and then withdrew). GB’s new Head Coach, Mark Saunders, summed up the story of GB’s fifth straight European title. GB went to the European Championship with the UK softball community expecting nothing less than the Gold Medal. After all, GB had won every other European Championship so why should this be different? The squad selected only had seven members from the 2004 team remaining plus two other players with previous European experience. With nine players (half the squad) making their European debut, plus a new Head Coach, this was a very different team to the one that had won the 2004 title in Austria. Due to the domestic schedule, we had the unexpected luxury of being able to arrange two training weekends for the squad in August, including warm-up games against some of the best UK-based players, before heading for Slovenia at the end of the month. This, added to the fact that we were able to train with the actual make of balls that were going to be used in the tournament, meant that this was the best-prepared GB squad to go to the Europeans. The tournament schedule (at last the ESF was beginning to draw up schedules suitable for slowpitch rather than fastpitch!) gave us eight group games over three days, which meant I had the opportunity to give plenty of game time to all the players and get them prepared for the tougher games they would face during the Page Playoff round. Right from the start we knew our main rivals would be the Irish and the Czechs, and although we won all the group games against them I knew that didn’t mean anything unless we were able to beat them in the knockout stages. The second group game against the Czechs really showed the character and the depth of the GB squad. Even though we were one run down in the fifth inning we were able to use all our bench players to eventually win the game by five runs. What this showed the other teams was that we always had options and weren’t afraid to use them. And this stood us in great stead for the semi-final against the Irish where again we came under pressure. Two runs down with two out in the bottom of the seventh, we again turned to the bench. Martin Cartledge came in to run for Steve Patterson and Fiona Hunter was put in to pinch-hit. Fiona belted a line drive to left-centre that gave Martin the chance to move from first to third and, by drawing the throw, Martin enabled Fiona to get to second. This gave our top batter, Dan Spinks, the opportunity to knock in the crucial two runs, which he did with ease. This win gave us the confidence to turn it on in the final against the Czech Republic (who once again ambushed Ireland in their semi-final matchup) and we did the one thing we hadn’t done all tournament: score in every inning and also win every inning. The Czechs were tough opponents but in the end GB was too strong and finished with the Gold Medal. The key to GB’s performance was the balance between talented new players and seasoned veterans, a great team spirit and the ability of everyone in the squad to contribute in clutch With two new teams in the Europeans Championships and a good discussion between GB, Ireland and the ESF about the format next time, I’m hopeful that the 2008 European Slowpitch Championship should be even better.

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