May 29, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) The United States and Japan are longtime rivals in softball. For the good of the sport, they are on the same team.

The U.S. will participate in the four-team Japan Cup in August as preparation for the sport's possible return to the Olympic program in 2020.

Softball was removed for the 2012 Olympics and won't be in the 2016 Games, either. But Japan, the reigning world champion, will host the 2020 Games, and the host nation can propose the addition of sports. U.S. softball officials hope a successful Japan Cup, which will include Australia and Chinese Taipei, will influence the International Olympic Committee when makes its final decision before next year's games in Rio.

''It's so important,'' U.S. national coach Ken Eriksen said. ''I can't stress enough how important it is, and how USA Softball has recognized the great relationship we have with Japan softball. There is tremendous respect because of our competition over the years and years and years. It's a good marriage, and both countries recognize the importance of working together to promote the game abroad.''

The United States and Japan have won all of the gold medals in Olympic softball - the U.S. won in 1996, 2000 and 2004, and Japan won in 2008. Japan won world titles in 2012 and 2014. The United States will travel to Ogaki, Japan, and play Australia and Chinese Taipei on Aug. 7, and Japan on Aug. 8. The final will be Aug 9.

USA Softball executive director Craig Cress said he's already preparing as though softball will return for the 2020 Games.

''It's our job to do everything we can to positively promote our sport to be ready to take that big stage when we have that opportunity again,'' Cress said. ''We are a sport that deserves to be there.''

Cress expects Japan to push baseball when it makes its proposals in September, too.

''We have a great opportunity forthcoming,'' he said. ''Japan, obviously, is very strong in both those sports. They're looking at it as an opportunity to win two gold medals. When you have that opportunity, you're going to be promoting it very hard.''

UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez, whose team is in this week's Women's College World Series, said getting the sport back into the Olympics is vital for its long-term health.

''I think at the grassroots level, I truly believe we are a sport that needs to make sure that we continue to get those grassroots kids in the sport,'' she said. ''And a big part of that is getting us ultimately back to that Olympic stage, because that's something that all kids have a dream to be able to strive for.''

The Women's College World Series is a key training ground with eight participants currently on the national team: Tennessee's Annie Aldrete, LSU's Bianka Bell, UCLA's Ally Carda, Oregon's Janelle Lindvall and Janie Takeda, Alabama's Haylie McCleney, Michigan's Sierra Romero and Florida's Kelsey Stewart. Those players also will compete at the Pan Am Games in July and in the Japan Cup - good experience if the Olympics plan comes together.

''This is a feather in the cap of any player who goes on to play on the national team,'' Eriksen said. ''If you don't have College World Series experience, it's really tough to understand what the fire feels like to get into international competition.''

Eriksen said if the sport returns to the Olympics, U.S. Olympic Committee funding will increase, and that will especially help the players who have left the college game. For now, funding is limited, and many of the coaches and players with the national program are doing it for the love of the game, in hopes that their Olympic dreams eventually can come true.

''It's really from the heart, and not from the wallet, that these young people are trying to continue to carry the flame to keep it going until the money comes back again to supplement the program,'' he said.

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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