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College softball an anchor for Olympic hopefuls in pandemic

February 26, 2021 GMT
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FILE - Oklahoma's Nicole Mendes (11) and Kelsey Arnold (3) celebrate scoring in the fifth inning during the Women's College World Series softball game between the against Oregon at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, in this Sunday, June 4, 2017. Division I softball is providing a training ground this season for players preparing for the 2021 Olympics. Oklahoma’s Nicole Mendes and North Carolina State’s Tatyana Forbes will play for Mexico, their schools said. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman via AP, File)
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FILE - Oklahoma's Nicole Mendes (11) and Kelsey Arnold (3) celebrate scoring in the fifth inning during the Women's College World Series softball game between the against Oregon at ASA Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City, in this Sunday, June 4, 2017. Division I softball is providing a training ground this season for players preparing for the 2021 Olympics. Oklahoma’s Nicole Mendes and North Carolina State’s Tatyana Forbes will play for Mexico, their schools said. (Sarah Phipps/The Oklahoman via AP, File)

NORMAN, Okla. (AP) — Division I softball is providing a training ground this season for players preparing for the 2021 Summer Olympics in Japan.

UCLA’s Rachel Garcia and Bubba Nickles and Arizona’s Dejah Mulipola are on the U.S. squad that will go to Tokyo. Oklahoma’s Nicole Mendes and North Carolina State’s Tatyana Forbes will play for Mexico, their schools said. Washington’s Gabbie Plain is a finalist for a slot on Australia’s team.

During Olympic years, Team USA’s college players who are finalists for the Olympic squad usually travel the country playing with the national team. Garcia, Nickles and Mulipola made a joint decision with Team USA and coach Ken Eriksen to stay with their college teams this year.

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Eriksen said the other 15 U.S. players are not touring this time because of COVID-19 has taken opportunities off the table. He said the situation favors college players who get game competition.

“They actually have a bonus factor over the other 15 players in that they’re getting daily training,” Eriksen said of the college players. “They’re getting daily at-bats, they’re getting daily reps. I wish the situation with COVID was different, that the other 15 were getting just as much time.”

Arizona coach Mike Candrea, who coached the gold medal-winning USA squad at the 2004 Games and the team that earned silver in 2008, said annual tour games don’t offer as much of a challenge as the college players find with their schools.

“When we go on tour, we’re playing teams we know we’re going to beat,” he said. “The competition level is not as good as you would like it to be, whereas I think the three college kids are going to have an opportunity to play a very difficult schedule that will prepare them.”

It means that college softball gets a boost from the return of three of its best players.

Garcia, a pitcher who also plays first base, was the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year in 2018 and 2019 and Most Outstanding Player of the 2019 Women’s College World Series. Nickles, a utility player, was a Softball America All-American in 2019. Mulipola was NFCA Catcher of the Year as a junior in 2019 and was a first-team NFCA All-American that season.

Garcia said the three still are very much a part of Team USA’s preparation.

“We do have the opportunity to be involved when we have our Zoom calls or team meetings,” she said. “So we’re still being included with the loop of everything. And on top of it, we were told that whenever we are needed, we’re allowed to go and just train, play, or whatever is going on anytime we are needed up until the Olympics.”

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Eriksen said he’s not worried about whether the players will be ready because the programs they play for know what to do. Candrea is one of college softball’s most accomplished coaches. UCLA assistant coach Lisa Fernandez is a three-time Olympic champion.

Garcia, Nickles, Mulipola and Plain all play for Pac-12 teams, and all know how difficult it will be to get victories when they cross paths. In the latest USA Today/NFCA Coaches poll, UCLA is No. 1, Arizona is No. 3 and Washington is No. 5.

Nickles said the matchups with Mulipola and Arizona will be extra special this season.

“It is really cool that our other teammate is at a Pac-12 school,” Nickles said. “When we play against her, we’ll have that type of bond that will make the game even more fun.”

Mexico’s Forbes, an outfielder, ranked second nationally in hits, was fifth in batting and eighth in on-base percentage in last year’s shortened college season. Her teammate, Mendes, is a utility player and a two-time member of the Women’s College World Series All-Tournament team.

The Sooners are ranked No. 2 and Oklahoma coach Patty Gasso said she is on the same page with Team Mexico about Mendes.

“We have been in communication, and what’s nice is I have had some relationships with some of Team Mexico and their coaching staff, and they trust me,” Gasso said. “The attitude is, ‘Just get her ready.’ I think what we do at OU will have her ready when it’s time.”

Tarni Stepto, a pitcher for Oregon State, is a finalist for a spot on the Australian team. She opted out the college season to stay home and train. Plain chose to play tand her quest to make Australia’s squad adds pressure to perform at a high level for the Huskies.

“I would say it is quite important, but ultimately they are going to choose whoever they think is the best fit for the Australian team,” Plain said. “I think there are five or six pitchers, so quite a lot of heavy competition. So mostly, just keep playing as best as I can.”

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP