USA Softball preparing for Olympic vote on inclusion in 2020

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) As the Women's College World Series draws to a close, USA Softball officials believe a bigger stage for the sport is on the horizon.

The International Olympic Committee will vote before the Rio Games in August on whether to include baseball and softball on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Softball has not been played at the Olympics since 2008 and won't be in Rio, but U.S. officials are optimistic that it will be included in 2020. The IOC recommended the inclusion of baseball-softball last week.

''Goosebumps came about,'' USA coach Ken Eriksen said. ''No question that another big hurdle was cleared.''

A positive vote would result in USOC funding and reintroduce softball as an Olympic sport, a critical selling point in drawing sponsorships.

''It was great,'' Eriksen said. ''At the same time, I had to tell all the girls on the team and the other people involved in America - cautiously optimistic.''

Craig Cress, executive director of USA Softball, said the positive response from the IOC was welcome.

''It's never over till it's over, but just knowing that the executive council endorsed our sports is extremely important to us and gratifying,'' Cress said.

Other sports backed for inclusion by the IOC board were surfing, karate, sport climbing and skateboarding for Tokyo. The five sports, which were proposed for inclusion last year by Tokyo organizers, were presented as a package and they will go to a vote of the full IOC at its session in Rio on the eve of the games.

In the meantime, Team USA is already working as if the vote will go its way.

''I think you need to be prepared for it,'' Eriksen said. ''The plan is in place as we train, not only this year in 2016, but to put into place a skeletal program in 2017, 18, 19, 20, leading up to the Games.''

Part of the preparation is finding players. Many of the nation's top players were involved in the Women's College World Series. USA National Team members whose teams qualified for the world series are Alabama's Haylie McCleney, Auburn's Kasey Cooper, LSU's Bianka Bell and UCLA's Paige Halstead and Delaney Spaulding.

Junior National team members whose teams qualified are Oklahoma's Sydney Romero, UCLA's Johanna Grauer, LSU's Emily Griggs and LSU's Allie Walljasper.

The college world series is one of Team USA's most important training grounds.

''I think it showcases some of our best athletes,'' Eriksen said. ''Team play is a lot different than what can be done at the next level. We utilize the college level as the minor leagues of what we can see can be drafted to the next level.''

If softball gets back into the Olympics, an already growing sport in the United States could get a significant boost.

''At this point, the pinnacle of our sport, the biggest stage is the college stage, but ultimately the goal is to be able to have that opportunity to wear the red, white and blue,'' UCLA coach Kelly Inouye-Perez said. ''It inspires all of those that play this sport to want to get in and have that opportunity to represent their country at the highest level. I believe it will have a ripple effect of growing it at the grassroots.''

It would also stir interest and provide opportunities internationally.

''This will now take off and spread worldwide to many, many other countries, and it will open up a lot of different avenues for coaches that are here, because they're going to be sought after to try and teach the game,'' Auburn coach Clint Myers said. ''It will broaden horizons both here and abroad, and adding it back into the Olympics can only make the sport greater.''

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

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