OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Ken Eriksen has flashbacks when he looks at the U.S. Olympic softball roster.
Eriksen was an assistant coach in 2004 when the United States won gold in Athens. Now the head coach, he sees a similar talent level, demeanor and focus in the squad that will head to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“Very athletic team,” Eriksen said Tuesday. “Well diversified with any position that we can play. Well diversified in any kind of game we want to play. Speed, power, short game.”
Softball will return to the Olympics next year for the first time since 2008, and the United States finished its Olympic trials last week. Cat Osterman, a pitcher who won a gold medal in Athens in 2004, and Monica Abbott, a pitcher who earned silver in Beijing in 2008, are the veteran headliners.
“They’ve been there, and they’ve done that, and they go out there and it’s 100% effort every single day on the field,” Eriksen said. “Off the field, tremendous maturity and leadership.”
A 15-player roster and three alternates were chosen.
Rachel Garcia, the pitcher who led UCLA to a Women’s College World Series title this year, made the squad. She has been the USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year the past two years.
Infielders are Ali Aguilar, Valerie Arioto, Delaney Spaulding and Kelsey Stewart. Outfielders are Haylie McCleney, Michelle Moultrie and Janie Reed. Catchers are Dejah Mulipola and Aubree Munro. Utility players are Ally Carda, Amanda Chidester and Bubba Nickles.
Replacement players are catcher Taylor Edwards, infielder Hannah Flippen and pitcher Keilani Ricketts.
Garcia and Nickles both have eligibility remaining at UCLA and Mulipola has eligibility left at Arizona. Eriksen said USA Softball has been in touch with both schools and is trying to get a redshirt year for them.
Eriksen said their maturity level allows them to fit right in with the veteran players.
“It’s amazing that if you didn’t have a sheet that said born this date, I don’t even think you’d know there was a difference,” he said.
Four players with UCLA ties are on the squad — Garcia, Nickles, Carda and Spaulding. Eriksen credited UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez and assistants Lisa Fernandez and Kirk Walker for helping them reach an elite level.
“They’re doing a great job of recruiting the best players in the country,” Eriksen said. “But also, their player development — I think they’re doing great with that kind of stuff.”
Eriksen will not coach college ball at South Florida this season. He has the title of the coach in residence and cannot coach the players or recruit. Jessica Moore will take over this season, allowing Eriksen to focus on coaching the U.S. team when it tours in preparation for the Olympics.
Eriksen said the Americans will need to be exceptional to win next year against a field that includes host Japan, Canada, Mexico, Italy and Australia. Japan won gold at the Olympics in 2008, back when the United States and Japan were well ahead of the rest of the field.
Eriksen said the gap has closed.
“Everybody else can play,” he said. “It’s going to be a different tournament. There are no safe out areas. There’s no bailout area in the Olympics. Every game is going to be extremely tough.”