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'Full circle' moment for Guelph's Kaleigh Rafter

The Guelph native will make her national softball team coaching debut at Exhibition Park Thursday
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Canada's Kaleigh Rafter gets ready to swing at a pitch during international women's softball play early last year. The Guelph native has retired from playing and now coaches the national team.

Exhibition Park holds some special significance for Guelph's Kaleigh Rafter.

"The first softball tryout I ever had was on that field," the Canadian women's softball coach told GuelphToday. "The first team I ever played with, that's where we played."

And now, she'll be able to add her national team head coaching debut to the list, when the team begins its Celebration Tour this Thursday at 7 p.m. against the Netherlands.

It's a celebration of the team's Olympic bronze medal performance in Tokyo last summer, a performance that turned out to be Rafter's swan song when it comes to her playing career.

That was always the retirement plan for the 35-year-old.

She said she had another eight months in her, mentally, before the COVID-19 pandemic extended that timeline by about a year.

"A few players now on the coaching staff, we joke it's not the softball part," she said. "I think I can still go out and play softball and be fine. It's just the willingness to put your body through the training and the practice, and all the other parts that go along with being an elite athlete."

Rafter was named coach in October, taking over for Mark Smith, who retired from his coaching position in August.

"It's been awesome," she said. "I've really enjoyed coaching, and I really enjoyed the development piece, and the planning piece."

But she admits it's a little more nerve wracking because she has less control over what happens out on the field. Nothing new for Rafter, who has coaching experience and currently serves on the staff with the NCAA's Florida State Seminoles, where she played collegiate softball in 2009.

"Now it's kind of my responsibility to make sure other people, who I don't really have control over, try to play well," Rafter said. "It's a fun transition, it's fun to work with them and see their growth.

"It's the reward for that pressure, but definitely way more stress now, having to evaluate and make those decisions but enjoying and trying to embrace the stress as much as I can."

Many from the Tokyo team decided to hang up the cleats, which Rafter said isn't unusual.

But she said there are a number of pieces returning, and will be a team needing some more runs to help a younger pitching staff.

"We're going to play fast, we're going to have to run the bases well," Rafter said. "I think we're going to hit really well, and then we're going to be playing a lot of defense, and have our pitchers' back as they get experience, and get a feel for what international softball is like."

The team is coming off a selection camp in Brampton, where 32 athletes got to showcase their skill ahead of not only the Celebration Tour, but also the Canada Cup International Softball Championship next week and the World Games in July.

It's a lot of softball for Rafter and company in the next few weeks.

And it all begins in the place Rafter first began her softball journey.

"Definitely a full circle moment that I don't think a lot of times you get in life," she said.

Tickets for Thursday's game can be purchased online or at the gate. Full ticketing details are available on the tour's website.


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Mark Pare

About the Author: Mark Pare

Mark is a graduate of Canadore College in North Bay whose career has taken him through a number of spots across Ontario. He spent nearly a decade in the radio news industry in North Bay, Timmins and Waterloo Region
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