Men’s Softball World Championship preview: Group A going to be a battle

With eight teams expecting to make the playoffs again in the tournament, worldwide softball fans can expect intense competition in Group A of the XVI WBSC Men’s Softball World Championship, starting on Thursday in Prague. World No. 1 New Zealand, Japan (3), Argentina (5), host Czech Republic (7), Mexico (9), Botswana (13), Philippines (17) and Cuba (24) have all playoff experience, and will arrive to Europe aiming to finish as one of the top four teams of the group and advance to the decisive stage of the tournament.

The group will open Thursday, with host Czech Republic facing the defending world champions New Zealand, in the only game of the day. The start of the contest is scheduled at 19:30, at Svoboda Park in Prague.

The other six teams will make their debut on Friday at Hippos Arena, in Havlickuv Brod. The Philippines will play Cuba, Argentina opens against Botswana, and Mexico will face Japan, in the last game of the day.

New Zealand is the most successful Men’s National Team in history. Two years ago, in Whitehorse, the Black Sox clinched their seventh world championship with a come-from-behind victory over arch-rivals, Australia. Captain Nathan Nukunuku (playing his seventh world championship) will lead a roster with three natural pitchers (Nik Hayes, Daniel Chapman and Josh Pettett) and three newcomers (Reilly Makea, Daniel Chapman and Jackson Watt). New Zealand has played the last ten World Championship Finals, winning six of them, and have never finished below fifth place overall in this event. They’ll try to keep the streak alive, playing (and winning) the last game of the tournament on 23 June.

Japan will be one of the main contenders in Group A. Built on the success of the Junior Men’s programme, the Japanese team comes to Czech Republic with high expectations, after winning in February the Challenge Cup in New Zealand, defeating the world champions by 3-1 in the final match. Reo Koyama will be the ace of the staff while two-way player Hikaru Matsuda will lead the offensive of the Asian Champions. The Japanese squad is trying to bring home their first-ever flagship world championship. Back in 2000 Japan lost their only World Championship final in East London, South Africa, against New Zealand. They have played in all the 15 previous World Championship.

The third top-ranked nation in Group A is Argentina (5). After back to back titles in the Junior World Championships 2012 and 2014, the South American nation will try to reach the podium for the first time ever in the senior event. Known for their always strong pitching staff, this time they will have the veteran right-hander Juan Potolicchio as their most experienced arm, while two-time junior world champions Huemul Mata and Roman Godoy will try to repeat their dominant performances at the junior level. Two years ago in Whitehorse, they matched their best performance ever, with a fourth-place finish. Now their goal is to claim the first medal in history for the white and blue team, in their tenth World Championship presence.

In their ninth consecutive World Championship participation, Czech Republic will host the most important Men’s Softball event in the world for the first time in history. Coming from a ninth-place performance two years ago in Whitehorse, the host nation is eager to capitalize on the home advantage to make the playoffs for the third time (2004 and 2015). Veterans Jaroslav Brenik, Michal Holobradek and Jonas Mach, along with newcomer Marek Joska, will take the circle in front of the host crowd, and try to guide their team into the top five in the final standings for the first time ever.

Mexico hosted the first ever World Championship in 1966 and made the final in home soil, to lose against the United States. And then four years later they clinched the Bronze medal in Oklahoma City. They made the playoffs in four if the first five World Championships, but then only advanced once, in 1996. Their last World Championship appearance was in 2015 in Saskatoon, finishing at tenth place. In the 13th participation in the event, Mexico will battle to be back in the big party again. The pitching staff will be full of young arms, with all four hurlers making their first appearance in a flagship softball World Championship. If they can stop the opposite offensive, then the always powerful lineup can carry the team to the playoffs again.

Two years ago Botswana stunned the world making the playoffs for the first time in history. The key game of the round robin was a 1-0 win over Czech Republic with a complete-game stellar performance by Kagiso Mogale. The right-hander will lead one more time his team, trying to repeat the 2017 historic performance. It will be their seventh participation in the World Championship. They made their debut in 1992 in Manila, the Philippines, and then have participated in six of the last eight global tournaments. The African champions aim to make back to back playoffs.

The Philippines made their debut in the World Championship in 1968 and made the playoffs to finish fourth. After that, they never came back to the decisive stage of the tournament in their next eight participations. They only won one game in 2013 and 2015 combined and missed the last World Championship in 2017. They’ll try to upset their rivals in this strong Group A, to advance again more than 50 years later.

The lowest ranked team in Group A is Cuba (24). However, they will be a dangerous squad to face. Last year they beat Venezuela to win the gold medal at the Central American and Caribbean Games Barranquilla 2018, and they also eliminated Canada from the Pan American Games in 2017. So in their second participation ever in the World Championship, Cuba will be in the mix for one of the top four spots in the group standings. The only Cuban participation was back in 1988 when the made the playoffs and finished fourth place. They rely on the experienced right-hander Alain Roman, a strong defence behind their pitchers and a dangerous lineup to make the playoffs again, 31 years later.

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Portugal, Chile, Cuba, Czech Republic, Estonia and Kazakhstan gather this week in Matosinhos, just north of Porto, where Portugal host the 2018 FIVB Men's Volleyball Challenger Cup, starting Wednesday, to determine one team to gain promotion to the 2019 FIVB Volleyball Nations League.

The winner of the Volleyball Challenger Cup, a new competition to complement the Volleyball Nations League, gets promotion to next year's edition, replacing the bottom-ranked of the Challenger teams in the VNL.

Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Korea are this year's Challenger Teams in the VNL. After Week 4 of the VNL, Korea are bottom of the table, with no chance of catching up with any of the other contenders in their last three remaining matches of pool play.

The six participating teams in the Volleyball Challenger Cup (1 host and 5 teams from continental VCC qualification tournaments - two from Europe and one each from Asia, South American and North Central America & Caribbean) will be divided into two pools of three. The top two of each pool will meet in crosswise semifinals, followed by the bronze medal match and final.

Pool A: Portugal, Estonia, Kazakhstan.
Pool B: Chile, Cuba, Czech Republic.

Full schedule of the 2018 FIVB Men's Volleyball Challenger Cup in Matosinhos (all times local, GMT+1):

Wednesday, 20 June:
18:00 - Cuba v Czech Republic
21:00 - Portugal v Estonia

Thursday, 21 June:
18:00 - Estonia v Kazakhstan
21:00 - Czech Republic v Chile

Friday, 22 June:
18:00 - Chile v Cuba
21:00 - Kazakhstan v Portugal

Saturday, 23 June:
15:00 - Semifinal 1A v 2B
18:00 - Semifinal 1B v 2A

Sunday, 24 June:
15:00 - Bronze medal match
18:00 - Final

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Spotakova gains revenge on Kolak in London

Revenge was sweet indeed for Barbora Spotakova at the Müller Anniversary Games in London this afternoon as the 36-year-old javelin world record-holder re-asserted her supremacy over the young pretender who has emerged from Croatia to challenge for her crown.

Sara Kolak not only took her Olympic title in Rio last summer but came to London for the ninth IAAF Diamond League meeting of the season fresh from a world-leading victory over her Czech rival in Lausanne and with a two-point advantage on the road to the final.

All that changed at the London Stadium this afternoon where a contest that produced three meeting records came to a thrilling climax as Spotakova snatched victory in the final round with 68.26m.

Not only was that her best throw of the year, indeed her best throw since winning the Olympic title in this same stadium five years ago, but it landed just 17 centimetres short of Kolak’s Lausanne winner.

For Spotakova it brought back memories of her Olympic victory here five years ago and puts her in positive mood for a tilt at a second world title a full 10 years after she won her first.

“I didn’t expect such a big throw even though I knew I was in good shape,” she said. “Competing back here flooded me with so many nice memories of 2012.

“Now, I have to keep my form until August – it’s pretty even with me and a couple of the other girls so I can’t underestimate anyone, it will be a very exciting competition.”

As for Kolak, the 22-year-old can feel unlucky at missing out on another IAAF Diamond League win as she led from round two and twice beat the old meeting record with 66.79m and 67.83m.

But victory slipped from her grasp with the penultimate throw of the competition as Spotakova improved from 66.34m in round four with her winning effort.

Slovenia’s Martina Ratej was third with 64.85m, her best of the year.

There was another meeting record in the women’s long jump where world champion Tianna Bartoletta beat her Lausanne victor Ivana Spanovic with a leap of 7.01m.

The Olympic champion matched her best of the year to take the lead from the Serbian in the fifth round after Spanovic had leapt 6.88m in the first then promptly retired.

“I wasn’t expecting that today, I felt good but I really surprised myself,” said Bartoletta. “It usually takes me until the championships to be on top form so I’m really happy to jump so well today.

“I have great memories of 2012 and running the 100m here. I’ve never jumped here so I was so excited to get a preview for the World Championships and get a feel of the runway.

“Now I’m ready to come back. I don’t even entertain the thought of not winning – I’m coming back to retain my title.”

For a moment, the women’s high jump threatened to take the mantle of best field event of the day as Maria Lasitskene cleared 2.00m for the 23rd time to notch up her 20th consecutive victory, then made a serious attempt at a national record.

Lasitskene, who competes as an authorised neutral athlete, was the only jumper to manage 2.00m although USA’s teen wonder Vashti Cunningham came close to matching her, having cleared 1.97m at her third try.

It wasn’t to be, and Lasitskene had one go at 2.03m before attacking 2.08m.

“We decided to try the Russian record of 2.08m – I think I had one good attempt,” she said. “The points are good in the long run for the Diamond League, but I’m not happy that I didn’t jump higher.”

Olympic champion Ekaterini Stefanidi once again showed imperious form in the pole vault when she sailed over 4.81m at the first attempt to take her third IAAF Diamond League victory of the year.

The event was pitched as a clash between the Olympic gold and silver medallists, but Rio runner-up Sandi Morris, who arrived in London late on Saturday from France, bowed out at 4.73m to finish fourth overall.

That left Stefanidi and Nicole Büchler, each with one failure at 4.73m. Büchler’s task at 4.81m was to break the Swiss record, a feat just beyond her this time. Stefanidi had three valiant attempts at a Greek record of 4.91m, but wasn’t close.

“I’m not a morning or early afternoon person so it took me a while to find my rhythm and get going,” she said. “But, for a bad day, 4.81m is still fairly pleasing.”

Jamaica’s Fedrick Dacres looked on course for a one-centimetre victory over Philip Milanov in the discus before world leader Daniel Stähl produced a sixth-round effort of 66.73m to move from third to first and maintain his supremacy in the road to the final.

Dacres had snatched the lead from Milanov at half way with 66.66m but had to settle for second as his last-round throw landed at 65.33m. With the final to come, Stähl leads Dacres 2-1 in IAAF Diamond League head-to-heads and will go to the World Championships as favourite.

“It was really nice to get the feel of the circle here and to perform well as Diamond League leader is good,” he said. “I’ll look forward to throwing at the final in Brussels.”

Jeff Henderson was the only man beyond eight metres in the long jump, the Olympic champion leading a US sweep of the top three with a best of 8.17m.

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Deputy Foreign Ministers of Cuba and the Czech Republic Meet in Havana

Cuba's Deputy Foreign Minister Ana Teresita González met in Havana with his visiting counterpart from the Czech Republic, Martin Tlapa.

Tlapa is on a two-day visit here, heading a delegation made up of 24 business executives from the European country.

According to the Cuban foreign ministry, the deputy foreign ministers of Cuba and the Czech Republic agreed on the good prospects for strengthened trade and economic ties, based on mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs.

In statements to Radio Praga before boarding the plane that would take him and his delegation to Havana, Deputy Foreign Minister Martin Tlapa said that the time has now come for the Czech Republic to resume its contacts with Cuba, given that the Caribbean state has engaged in constructive dialogues with the United States and the European Union.

  • Published in Cuba
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