Greece’s national women’s softball team – staffed heavily with Greek-American stars – is now one of the Big Six in European play and harboring an outside hope of making the 2020 Olympics.
They’re coached by Tony Foti, a Canadian who is an Assistant Coach at Middle Tennessee State who wants Greeks to get behind them.
The team, playing against older and more experienced teams in the field of 24 in European play in Italy earlier this year did well enough – finishing sixth – to garner interest in Greece, where he said some older Greeks still can’t take to women playing sports.
“When we were playing in Italy our Facebook and Twitter accounts got lit up in Greece,” Foti, who a former fast-pitch player in Canada and the United States told The National Herald. “If the national team does well, it provides the exposure and stimulus for kids to play,” he added.
Greece’s women’s team was formed for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens but has struggled for funding and Foti and his staff are simultaneously trying to prepare the team for top-flight international competition and raise money, which has proved even harder than trying to compete against clubs like the United States and China.
“After the economy crashed in Greece in 2008, the sport lost all its government funding and the sport basically died. A new executive board was created in 2013 led by Kostis Liaromatis and have been trying to restore and grow the sport.”
But with Greece’s major Olympic sports also facing little government support he said it’s been even worse for the women’s softball team. “There is a lot of resistance from the Greek Sports Federation to fund softball, and it has basically said if you can show that you can compete on the world stage then we will fund you … so we created a plan on how to grow the sport at home while building a very strong national team program,” he said.
“Money allows us to run training camps which are the grounds for developing the players. You need to run talent and tryout camps and then training camp and every time you run a 20-24 person four or five day event, with hotels, equipment, you’re talking $8000 a shot,” he said.
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Young Greek-American women are responding and he’s identified nearly 50 who want to make the team and half of them are already in the process of getting dual citizenship with Greece, an easier process if you’re an athlete who can help the country.
In October, 2016, Liaromatis approached him to help the program. Foti, whose Italian family traces roots on both sides to Greece, brought 35 years coaching experience, including seven in Europe so he knew what the Greek team was up against, even with top-notch players like Demi Turner from the University of Alabama, NCAA All-American, CaraMia Tsirigos of Indiana University, who was Big Ten All-Conference, Chelsey Lisikatos, All-Conference at UNC Charlotte, C-USA All Conference, Mia Marinakis from Bona Vista NS, one of the top recruits in the country and the highly-sought after Alexis Bazos from the University of Notre Dame who hit .310 at the European tourney.
He and his staff have already made other countries take notice. Bazos, whose grandparents were born in Greece and whose parents came to the United States as teenagers said she’s grounded in her family as well as her sport.
“Through them I became acquainted with the culture and customs. I haven’t learned the language yet but we learned the national anthem,” for when it was played at the tournament.
“I knew coach Foti was a great coach and I wanted to represent my grandparents and their country,” she told TNH.
Even playing against stiff competition at a Division 1 school like Notre Dame didn’t prepare her fully though for the international game and its experienced, older players who have been on the world stage for years. “They’re probably comparable to any Division 1 team in the country,” she said. That’s the speed of the game at that level.
“Some of the teams had players in their older 20s and even 30s. To play against women who have played at the higher level of the game for so long was interesting,” she said.
She said she’s glad to be part of the effort to make Greece a name in the international game. “Greece is building their team and we’re going to put all our efforts into this,” she said.
Foti said the road to the Olympics is hard though. Greece has three chances but realistically one good opportunity, he said. The hardest would be to finish in the top two at the World Championships in Japan in 2018 and the next most difficult is to win the European Olympic qualifier in 2019 – the team is seeded fifth.
The best option is to win the last chance qualifier in a tourney in 2019 or 2020 that hasn’t yet been set. He’s being aided by Assistant Coaches Angel Santiago of Nicholls State and Shane Showalter of Austin Peay, both head coaches at their schools.