The Beit Shemesh Fireballs, a member of Israel’s fast-pitch softball league, is heading to Dupnitsa, Bulgaria for the Women’s European Cup, a five-day tournament starting Monday.
The squad of 14 players is actually made up by a core of Fireballs, supplemented by a few national team players as well as three non-European pick-up players allowed for by the sport’s governing rules.
“Competing in Europe is very important for Israel because it creates a real awareness of our level and who we are,” team member Rhonda Lloyd, who has been playing competitive softball practically since her arrival from Teaneck, New Jersey in 2003, told Haaretz. “There are athletes out there who never come into contact with Israelis and mostly think of us in terms of what they have learned of our country in the news. Sports allows us as an opportunity to create friendships and bonds and change perceptions of our country and us as a people.”
She said that two of the pick-up players are a U.S. coach who has been living in Israel for two years and a U.S. athlete who has dedicated her time to coaching the Israeli team. The third is a Chinese athlete, Abigail, who is planning on immigrating to Israel. The team also has a French athlete, who has been playing in Israel a couple of years while living and working here, but since she has an EU passport, she is exempt from the pick-up player quota.
Lloyd, who grew up in Maryland, said the team has made a lot of relationships through international tournaments, including the locally-hosted Ayelet Games. (Ayelet is the federation of non-Olympic sports in Israel.) She cited the pitcher-catcher sister act from Denmark on the team.
“We needed a pitcher and I reached out to the other teams,” she recalled. “I had so many good connections with athletes who said they’d love to play with us. And we picked up these two players from Denmark. It’s the full circle of going out and being ambassadors for our country, and how some of them join us in the end.”
Lloyd noted that softball has been reinstated as an Olympic sport. Team Israel competed last month in a European tournament hoping to qualify, but fell heartbreakingly short; the squad finished eighth, while only the top six moved on. Still, she observed, “it was exciting to watch.”
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The team didn’t get any support from Israel’s sports federations, as so many other teams representing Israel in women’s sports. So, the team stitched together a fan club T-shirt campaign, which Lloyd said was instrumental in helping players fund their trip.
The Fireballs, who are coached by Jeffrey Perry, will open Monday against Akademiks Sofia. After taking on Angels Dupnitsa on Tuesday, the Fireballs will also face teams from Croatia, Sweden, Poland, Great Britain, Denmark and Spain. The medal round will be held Saturday, August 24.