BURNABY — Getting a second chance to continue making a great first impression is all Amanda Janes and the rest of her Simon Fraser Clan softball teammates could have hoped for.
And now, two months after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NCAA to cancel its entire spring season of competition, there is no questioning the itch Janes is feeling to eventually reunite with her teammates and continue writing a storyline which through the second weekend of March seemed the true definition of flipping the script.
Coming off a 4-24 record in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and picked to finish last by member coaches in its 2020 preseason poll, the Clan, under first-year head coach Tina Andreana, were seemingly the exact opposite of everything they were purported to be.
In fact on March 9, one day after completing a back-to-back weekend double-header sweep of visiting Montana State Billings atop Burnaby Mountain, SFU was named the GNAC’s Team of the Week, sporting a 7-1 record which had them sitting all alone in first place atop the GNAC standings.
The Clan were 13-5 overall (after going 9-30 overall in 2019), they’d won six straight (including three-of-four against preseason No. 2 Western Washington), and after going 1-13 at home the season prior, were a perfect 6-0 within the friendly confines of Beedie Field.
Then came the figurative whiplash which accompanied a dream season being cancelled.
Janes, however, has seized on its silver linings after the NCAA granted an additional season of eligibility to student-athletes in all spring sports, allowing the Clan’s entire roster to return in 2021 with the same amount of seasons remaining as they each took into 2020.
“Softball has been my life for 15 years and for me, knowing that my career might have come to an end in that way was really tough,” the 22-year-old senior catcher said Thursday by phone from her home in Brampton, Ont. “I was devastated for those few days, but once we found out that we were all going to get an extra year, I was so relieved and happy for that opportunity to compete another season in the NCAA with my teammates… especially when you consider how much we had all improved and the kind of season we were having.”
A SHORT SEASON FULL OF SURPRISES
After having played for Canada at the World Championships, and in the NCAA championship tournament with Oregon State, Oakville, Ont., native Tina Andreana served as an assistant coach at both North Dakota and UNLV before being hired as SFU head coach this past July.
Ask her how the program has been able to so quickly gain traction and shift its gears after a 2019 campaign in which the Clan lost, at one juncture, 20 straight games, and she boils her answer down to a pretty simple one.
“I can’t speak on the year I wasn’t here,” she begins, “but from Day 1, this has been a group of athletes here that really wanted to put in the work, and they made it very easy for me to come in and work with them.”
Immediately, the feeling took Andreana back to some of the best environments she has been fortunate enough to be a part of in the sport.
“Being that I have coached at a few different levels now, there is always one thing that I found in common with the teams that are successful,” she continued, “and they are the ones that mesh and bond as a team, the ones where the players genuinely enjoy what they are doing. So that is all I tried to bring… I just came to practice every day excited to practice and ready to have some fun.”
And however elusive team chemistry can be, the numbers certainly prove Andreana to be an ideal catalyst.
With a roster largely recruited by longtime former head coach Mike Renney, and 2019 head coach Michelle Peters, Andreana’s version of the Clan included junior third baseman Alex Ogg of Surrey opening the season at the plate on a sizzling .521 clip, No. 1 in the GNAC and seventh nationally in Div. 2.
“She is an athlete you can always count on,” says the coach. “Whenever she steps up to the plate she is a threat and she has really worked on getting more power behind her swing. Obviously she has some speed. She is just a well-rounded player who is tough to pitch to, and all of that keeps a pitcher and the defence on their toes.”
As well, Janes came into her own as a power hitter, matching her 2019 home run total of six (in 119 at-bats) through just 44 plate appearances in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.
The Clan’s other regulars included junior infielders Hannah Boulanger (.362), Hanna Finkelstein (.297) and Mel Groenewegen (.255), and outfielders Chelsea Hotner (.323, junior), Kate Ferguson (.273, junior) and Megan Duclos (.204, freshman).
And, in one of the most startling improvements across all of D-2 sports this past season, sophomore pitcher Anissa Zacharczuk, who in 2019 went 3-5 with a 5.45 ERA, started 10 games in 2020 before being shut down, going a perfect 10-0 with six complete games and a 3.58 ERA.
“I am just speculating, but a lot of freshmen stepping up to the college level struggle a little bit that first year,” said Andreana of the Kitchener, Ont., native. “This year when I came in she was eager to step up and work on the what she is good at, but also to make improvements on her weaknesses.”
Andreana was also thrilled at battery chemistry which developed between not only her young ace but the rest of the pitching staff, and her veteran catcher Janes. It’s a combination which should be even stronger in 2021.
“The transition to university ball is very intense and difficult, but I think once Anissa got that under her belt, it really built her confidence,” said Janes. “Plus coach Tina was a pitcher, so that was great for her to be able to lean on.”
The Clan’s improved ability to hit the ball, and hit it with power helped provide a cushion and more precisely for Zacharczuk, a confidence that her team could win games any number of different ways.
Of course Janes’ power, which didn’t fully reveal itself until this season, has been key in that department.
“As a hitter she doesn’t really have any weak spots,” Andreana said of Janes. “She was really receptive to new coaching… really coachable, and sometimes that is really difficult for seasoned athletes.”
THE COUNTDOWN TO FIRST PITCH 2021
For Janes, one of only two seniors on the 2019 Clan along with infielder Courtney De Adder (Maple Ridge), the bittersweet script of 2020 has done nothing but whet her appetite for a 2021 finale.
Ask her about her power surge, and her response reflects the level to which her joy for the game has continued to rise.
“I took the weight room seriously this year,” admits Janes, whose home run total was tied for second in the GNAC. “When you start to hit home runs in BP, it helps your confidence and TJ (Sider) and Brad (Kohler), our strength coaches, really helped. I really changed my mental mindset in the offseason and then having Tina to throw us live pitching made a huge difference.”
Before the onset of the pandemic, Janes’ plan was to earn her degree from SFU, then return back east and take some additional course at the University of Toronto in order to enter dental school. She’s earned that degree, and now finishing school will coincide with the end of her collegiate softball career.
“When we heard that we were going to get an additional year, I was super-excited,” she says. “It’s a win-win. Now I am going to take my last few classes (at SFU) and also get a chance to play softball with my teammates.”
Andreana had gone into her first season as SFU head coach with a small roster of just 14 players, and that means that even when she announces her incoming class of five new recruits, the roster will still be very manageable.
“Obviously everyone was sad but I think this team took a really, really mature approach to the news,” Andreana explained of the day she told her team that an extraordinary 2020 season was over. “They were just starting to prove to themselves what they could do, and now they know what they can do next year. It’s been exciting to see.”
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