Both teams pitch their ambitions much higher

Both teams pitch their ambitions much higher
Niels Aplin (left) and Jerel Tan at fence batting practice at Kallang Softball Diamond. The team’s medal prospects will hinge on the form of the highly-rated pitchers.

Four years ago, when softball was last contested at the SEA Games, Singapore were hammered 11-1 by eventual gold medallists Philippines and 7-0 by finalists Indonesia during the preliminary rounds.

Although the Republic eventually finished third, the gulf between the title contenders and the also-rans was significant.

Vice-captain Marcus Lew, an 11-year national-team veteran, cringes at the memory.

The 31-year-old, who plays at third base, recalled: "We were helpless and overpowered."

But Lew takes heart from the fact that Singapore won five SEA Games bronze medals in the 30-odd years until 2011 and he firmly believes the hosts are now ready to make their first-ever final next month.

National coach John Tan, 53, concurs, saying: "We should make the final."

On the wider Asian level, where the competition is stiffer, Singapore had won silver at the Asian Junior Championships over the last decade - in 2005, 2010 and 2013 - and some of these players now form the backbone of the senior national team.

The Republic's first international trophy came at the SEA Cup in Indonesia last September after beating Thailand 10-3 in the final.

More progress was made at the Asian Championships last December, when the Republic finished fourth on home soil, behind eventual champions Japan - international heavyweights who do not participate in the SEA Games - and regional rivals Philippines and Indonesia.

Apart from being their best finish in the tournament, they also pushed ASEAN champions Philippines close in their 2-5 semi-final loss.

To prepare for the SEA Games, the team had a two-week training tour to Japan. Roughly half that time was spent training under Haruka Saito who coached the Japan women's team to gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Said Tan: "(Japan) is a country with a real softballing culture - and I wanted it to be an eye-opener for my players.

"We spent a fair bit of time polishing fundamentals. I had the privilege of learning from her (Saito), gathering ideas about how to approach the Games."

Singapore's pitchers, highly rated by the national coaches, hold the key to improving on previous bronze medals at the SEA Games.

"It's the first time Singapore have escalated to the top tier among our rivals in this department," noted Tan.

The Republic's pitchers can hit a top speed of 120kmh and national pitching coach Florante Acuna believes that his charges can compete with the region's best.

The 37-year-old, who won three SEA Games golds with the Philippines, the country of his birth, said: "The pitchers are the best in the region in terms of skill but now it's about their handling of the different game situations."

Familiarity with the venue could also be a factor. Because the softball fixtures at the SEA Games are to be held at Kallang Softball Diamond, the same venue where they have trained for the past year, captain Ivan Ng hopes that awareness gained at the ground will be a springboard for the team's success.

"We are a very young bunch with huge drive and heart," said the 27-year-old catcher.

"With a home ground advantage, we can make the finals. From there, anything can happen."

Likewise, the women's team - whose best showing was a silver at the 2007 Games in Thailand - are also hoping to hit top form next month.

But they are likely to face intense competition from the Philippines and Indonesia. While medals are the top priority next month, women's team captain Magdelyn Chow, 26, is also looking forward to the competition, hoping that a good showing at home will also bring about a greater awareness of the sport in the post-Games period.

"Hopefully, by producing results next month, it will spur further interest and push the local playing field to a higher level," she said.

ocharles@sph.com.sg

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