As a young girl, Ashley Stephenson looked for ways to play baseball, even when it meant practicing on her own. Some days, she’d hold a tennis racket in one hand with a glove on the other, smashing the ball as high as possible to work on her fielding.
That dedication to the game’s still there, only now it shows up in the gym sessions Stephenson has prioritized five times a week for the past 14 years. It’s all designed to ensure she’s ready to take the field for Canada’s Women’s National Team, and her next chance will come at the Women’s Baseball World Cup (WBSC) in August.
Over the years, Stephenson has become a veteran presence at third base; she has been playing in the WBSC ever since Canada debuted back in 2004.
As she approaches her 14th WBSC in Viera, Fla., on Aug. 22, there are two things that haven’t changed over her time with the national team: her commitment to and love for the game.
“It’s never been a chore,” Stephenson said. “I still at 35 love to go to our three or four-hour practices that start early Saturday morning, even though my friends think I’m out of my mind.”
She started out as a bench player who came in as a relief pitcher and a sub at third base. It was in 2005 that Stephenson became the starting third baseman with the Canadian National Team.
That’s where she has stayed for 13 years, and although she said she has gotten more comfortable at the position, her defensive game has mainly stayed consistent. Her offensive role on the team has evolved, however.
“Now I’m looking to maybe double to the gap or lay down a bunt for a base hit, my game has certainly changed at the plate just because of my age,” Stephenson said.
“I go to the gym all the time, but you’re just not going to be 25 every day, so I had to really work hard and make some adjustments to make sure I can still compete at the top level,” she added.
During the last few years Stephenson said she has worked harder than ever before. The effort has paid off; as she got more experience she became someone that other players could look up to both on and off the field.
“I did a lot of growing up,” she said. “I went from not having a leadership role, to in the last six to eight years I consider myself one of the leaders on the team.”
Her experiences with the national team off the field have also been important to shaping who she is as a person. Stephenson travelled to Venezuela, Japan and Cuba and has survived earthquakes and a hurricane while on the road with the team.
“They’re just experiences,” she said. “Some of it’s scarier than others, but it’s interesting life experiences.”
Stephenson has also had to make sacrifices to play at a high level for so long. While juggling her job as a high school phys-ed teacher in Burlington, Ont., with her commitments as a professional athlete, other parts of her life have sometimes suffered.
“I’m very strict about how hard I work in order to maintain that level of competition,” she said. “I fit it in, because I exclude other things that people probably wouldn’t want to exclude.”
“It’s something that I love to do, so you just make time to do it.”
The team itself has changed significantly since Stephenson first took the field in red and white. When they first started the roster was mainly from Alberta with a couple out in British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario, Stephenson said. Now, representation reaches the east coast as well.
“I think it just spans the country a little bit better as opposed to when we first started which is nice. I think it just means that the sport is really growing,” she said.
The level of competition has improved as well.
“Pitchers have easily three pitches now that they can go to in almost any count,” she said. “There’s pitchers who can run their fastball up around 80 m.p.h., I don’t think we would have seen any of that in 2004.”
Still, through all the changes with herself, the game, and the team in 14 years, Stephenson’s presence at third base has remained a constant for the Women’s National Baseball Team.
That, and her commitment and passion for the game.
“I just love to play,” she said.