2021 Olympic softball: Team USA's gold-medal chances in the sport's return to the Games

Softball returns as an Olympic sport this week in Tokyo, and star U.S. pitcher Cat Osterman, 38, is back as well. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Team USA softball pitchers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott stood on the podium, medals around their necks and flowers in their hands. Minutes earlier, "We Are The Champions" played on the loudspeaker and thundersticks clapped in the stands. Seconds before that, Team Japan mobbed their pitcher, Yukiko Ueno, who had helped topple the United States, denying the Americans the gold medal for the first time in the history of the Olympics.

Many wondered if it would be the last. Softball already had been scrapped from the 2012 Olympic lineup, leaving the American players with a sense of doom.

"I haven't really thought about the big picture," Osterman said that day. "It hurts too much to look at the future."

Usain Bolt, who struck gold three times in his Olympic debut in 2008, would defend his Olympic titles in 2012 and 2016. All the while, softball sat on the sidelines, banished from the Olympic program for the 2012 and 2016 Games.

Osterman retired from professional softball in 2015, took up coaching, got married and became a stepmom.

Abbott continued to play professional ball, including a decade with the Japan Softball League's Toyota Red Terriers. She signed the first million-dollar contract in National Pro Fastpitch history but, like Osterman, parted ways with the U.S. national team after the 2010 world championships without the prospect of another shot at Olympic gold in sight.

But later this week, softball will return to the Olympics for the first time since that 2008 U.S. heartbreaker, and both the 38-year-old Osterman and the 35-year-old Abbott will be on the field for Team USA -- 4,717 days after their last appearance.

But who's counting?

What's about to become reality seemed an impossibility to Abbott back in 2008. When asked if she could have foreseen this shot at redemption back then for herself and Osterman, Abbott had two words: "No way."

"We both have been through so much over the years, and especially since during that time most softball players didn't play past the age of 31, or have the opportunity to compete on a professional level," Abbott wrote in an email from Japan last week, as Team USA was completing its Olympic warmup. "Now look at us both, mid-30s and having played for so long. Women's sports have come a long way. Softball has come farther."

Just how far softball has come is illustrated in the talent that will assemble in Tokyo. Not only are Abbott and Osterman back, but the 38-year-old Ueno and her catcher, 33-year-old Yukiyo Mine, are back for Japan, too.

The U.S., ranked No. 1, and Japan, No. 2, are the favorites for gold in the six-team Olympic field. They have met in the final of every world championship dating back to 2002, with the U.S. winning gold five times and Japan winning twice.

Most recently, the U.S. prevailed 7-6 after rallying for three runs in the 10th inning in the 2018 world championships. Yamato Fujita, now on the Japanese Olympic roster, hit two homers and the United States finally got to Ueno, who also had pitched a complete game earlier that day in the semifinal against Canada. Abbott got the win for the U.S.

The rivalry, in other words, has survived its absence from the Olympics. The U.S. and Japan will meet on the final day of the tournament's round-robin segment. They play July 25 at 9 p.m. ET. The bronze-medal game will be at midnight ET on July 27 and the gold-medal game will be at 7 a.m.

"It's all about getting back what we feel is rightfully ours," Osterman said when announcing her return to Team USA in October of 2018.

The other four teams in the Olympic field are 2008 bronze medalist Australia (ranked No. 8 in the world), No. 3 Canada, No. 9 Italy and No. 5 Mexico, which is making its Olympic debut. Former NCAA stars dot -- sometimes blot -- the rosters of all four. There are no pushovers.

The top four teams from round-robin play will advance to the medal round. Japan takes on Australia in the opener on July 20 -- yes, that's two days prior to the opening ceremonies -- and the U.S. opens against Italy on July 20 at 11 p.m. ET.

"I'm pumped," Abbott said. "Olympic softball is the biggest stage in our sport and we are long overdue to be back in the Olympic Games."

Here are a few other storylines to watch:

The stars to Abbott and Osterman's strikes

Not that long ago, international softball -- and softball in general -- was dominated by pitchers. In the years since the sport last appeared at the Olympics, hitters have made a stand. In the first 10 world championship finals (not including the 1990 final that was rained out), a total of 24 runs were scored. In the five finals since the 2008 Olympics, 38 total runs were scored. That's an average of 2.4 runs per game before and 7.6 runs since.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying that coach Ken Eriksen and the U.S. will need some stars at the plate to complement their aces in the circle. Just don't ask us to pinpoint them. Any of the 13 players on the balanced and versatile U.S. roster not named Osterman or Abbott, all of whom will be making their Olympic debuts, could unleash the big swing in the big moment.

Starting with outfielder Haylie McCleney, the former Alabama star who delivers power and placement from the plate. She led Team USA at the 2018 world championships with a .520 batting average with two home runs, six RBIs and 14 runs scored.

Former Florida star Kelsey Stewart proved she can handle the pressure of the international stage when she drove in the game-winning run in the 10th inning at the 2018 world championships.

At the 2016 world championships, it was former Michigan star Amanda Chidester who led the U.S. to gold, with seven home runs and 18 RBIs.

Don't bet against ex-UCLA standout Delaney Spaulding, who is back after tearing the ACL and meniscus in her right knee in February 2020, and who might have missed out on the Olympics if the pandemic hadn't prompted the postponement.

Back from injury too is Bubba Nickles, who missed 27 games of UCLA's 2021 season with a wrist injury. Her UCLA teammate Rachel Garcia could emerge as a star either at the plate or in the circle -- or both. Ditto for another former Bruin, Ally Carda.

Did we mention the hits could come from anywhere?

Other batters to keep an eye on are catcher Aubree Munro (Florida), Valerie Arioto (California), Ali Aguilar (Washington), Michelle Moultrie (Florida), Janie Reed (Oregon) and Dejah Mulipola (Arizona). Yup. That's everyone. Point the pin we shall not.

Team Mexico or Team NCAA?

How's this for a stat: Team Mexico went 15-for-15 in landing NCAA Division I softball players to its roster, including several from some of the most decorated programs in the game's history.

You may recognize reigning national champion Nicole Mendes of Oklahoma, who scored a team-high eight runs in the Sooners' run to the title in Oklahoma City last month. Or her former teammate Sydney Romero, a 2016 national champion at Oklahoma and a two-time All-American.

Stretch your memory back just a bit, and you may recall Dallas Escobedo, who pitched Arizona State to the 2011 Women's College World Series title and was named most outstanding player at the tournament.

Then there's Tori Vidales, an all-SEC infielder at Texas A&M, Taylor McQuillin, an All-American pitcher from Arizona and Brittany Cervantes, an all-SEC slugger at Kentucky.

Perhaps the most unlikely of all, though, is former Arizona superstar pitcher Danielle O'Toole Trejo, the 2017 Pac-12 pitcher of the year who won gold medals wearing the red, white and blue with Team USA at the 2018 world championships and 2017 Pan Am Games before getting a waiver to play for Team Mexico when the USA circle started to fill up with the returns of Abbott and Osterman.

Three cheers for Canada

If it's a feel-good story or two (or three) that you crave, look no further than the Team Canada pitchers, names that will ring a resounding bell for NCAA softball fans.

Let's start with a pair of moms and Olympic veterans: 39-year-old mother of three Lauren Regula and 34-year-old and mom of two Danielle Lawrie-Locke.

Regula, who was known as Lauren Bay (sister of former MLB star Jason Bay) during her record-breaking and All-American career at Oklahoma State, was a member of Team Canada at both the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Lawrie-Locke was a member of the 2008 team. Neither of them has yet set foot on a podium.

Regula retired after Canada fell in the semifinals of the 2008 Games and soon gave birth to three children -- two sons and a daughter -- in just over three years. Lawrie-Locke, meanwhile, led the University of Washington to its lone national championship in 2009 and played professionally in the United States until announcing her retirement after giving birth to the first of her two daughters in 2013.

But the desire to win a medal -- and to inspire their children -- lured both moms back to the game.

"I think it is really inauthentic to tell my kids to chase their dreams and that they can do whatever they want ... and not go ahead and do that myself," Regula told Megan Fisher at OKstate.com.

"I just want to rewrite a different story of what I bring to the table," Lawrie-Locke told Kayla Lombardo for Softball America. "There were things in '08 that I wish I could have done a lot better. ... Doing this again has given me such a different love for this game.

"I wanted to show my children that pursuing stuff that makes me feel good is really important, but seeing me continuing to push through -- even though it's really, really hard -- is important."

Speaking of "really, really hard," enter another Team Canada pitcher, Sara Groenewegen.

The former All-American and star at the University of Minnesota will be making her Olympic debut -- three years after hovering between life and death.

Groenewegen, a Type 1 diabetic, was diagnosed with Legionnaires' disease in July of 2018 and spent 10 days in a medically induced coma while her teammates traveled to Japan for the world championships. She has few memories of the ordeal, but she's seen pictures of tubes going in and out of her body, hooked up to various machines, including an ECMO, which allowed her heart and lungs to rest while it removed carbon dioxide from her blood, oxygenated it, rewarmed it and sent it back into her body.

When she awoke, softball was practically the first thing that came to her hazy mind, but even standing was too much for her exhausted body. She knew almost immediately that playing the game again would be her recovery goal, if with a slightly adjusted perspective.

"Softball is just a game in the grand scheme of life," she told ESPN in August of 2018. "This was a reminder that health and wellness come before the fact that we compete against each other."

Quick hitters

Let's start with the juicy: On July 24 (1:30 a.m. ET), USA will take on Mexico. As you already know, that means a whole lot of clashes between former NCAA standouts. But it also means a clash between two players who got engaged last fall. Chidester of Team USA got down on one knee and proposed to Anissa Urtez (Utah) at Horseshoe Bend in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona.

"Once we get with our teams and we get on that field, we're playing against each other," Chidester told Outsports. "We've had a bunch of conversations about it, too. We're going to be happy for each other no matter what. No matter what." Added Urtez: "We told each other we don't know each other when we're on the field. It's game on."

And next to the dirty: A few things may catch your eye when you tune into the games. The first is that they will be played on artificial turf fields, not grass. Beyond the harrowing flashbacks to the U.S. women's soccer players' experience playing on artificial turf, the surface will also impact the speed of the game. Be on the lookout for fielders trying to adjust on the fly to higher -- albeit cleaner -- hops. Speaking of speed of the game, a 20-second pitch clock has been introduced to international softball since the last time it appeared in the Olympics. If a pitcher doesn't deliver in the allotted time, the batter is awarded a ball. Also in the interest of speed, a runner will be placed on second base at the start of extra innings.

And on to the messy: U.S. assistant coach and University of Washington head coach Heather Tarr will be coaching a former player (Aguilar) and against a few former players (Lawrie-Locke, Jen Salling and Victoria Hayward on Team Canada). But things might start to feel a bit messy on July 25 (9 p.m. ET) when the United States plays Australia, which features Gabbie Plain, the Pac-12 Pitcher of the Year in 2021 and the Huskies' ace. Plain plans to return to Washington for a final season after the Olympics. She is 88-13 with a 1.41 ERA.

And finally the nitty-gritty: Each team consists of 15 players, and each regulation game will consist of seven innings. The mercy rule will be in play for a 15-run lead after the third inning, a 10-run lead after the fourth and a seven-run lead after the fifth or sixth innings. No fans are allowed in the stands, so the all-important television schedule can be found here.