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Tucson sluggers aim Team Israel at ’20 Olympics

Alexis ‘A.J.’ Kaiser, seen here at bat for Syracuse University, grew up in Tucson and will be a member of Team Israel in women's softball. (Courtesy A.J. Kaiser)
The University of Arizona’s T Statman, left, and Noa Yakir of California State Polytechnic University were 2017 Maccabi USA teammates in Israel. (Photo courtesy T Statman)

Softball players across the country are coming together this summer to train for the Team Israel women’s softball team, which will be led by Stacey Iveson, the University of Arizona women’s softball director of recruiting-operations.

Iveson is a former Wildcat player and coach, and won four junior college national championships as a coach for Pima Community College and Yavapai College. She played softball and baseball at Catalina High School before attending the UA.

She accepted the position of head coach for Team Israel in December, and has begun the necessary steps for sending the team abroad this summer.

The players need to compile paperwork that includes a letter from their rabbi, showing proof of Jewish heritage. They also are required to undergo an FBI background check.

The players also need to have their birth certificates apostilled (a form of authentication) in the state where they were issued before they are considered for dual citizenship in Israel. They will formally make aliyah in order to be part of Team Israel.

Iveson’s paperwork challenge is intensified by the players’ dispersal across the country.

“We have both Vanessa [Foreman] and T, Tamara Statman, [who] are both from [the University of] Arizona, then we have a pitcher that just graduated from Princeton, another pitcher that graduated from Minot State [in North Dakota] and we have a catcher playing at Syracuse,” she says, ticking off several of the players.

Statman was integral in making the necessary connections for Team Israel — and a chance at the 2020 Olympics — to happen.

She had played on the USA women’s softball team at the World Maccabiah Games in the summer of 2017.

“When I was there I talked to the coaches and talked about the potential,” she says. “Fast forward to last year and they finally got the ‘OK’ from the Olympic federation.”

Statman is enthusiastic about the team being in the running for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

She has dreamed of playing in the Olympics from a young age. This dream was put on the back burner when softball was taken out of the Olympics for 2008 and 2012.

“The entire softball community was devastated that their dream had died, everyone dreams of being on a national team and playing softball for their country,” she said.

Statman is thrilled with the sport’s return to the Olympics for 2020. Invigorated by childhood aspirations and cultural pride, Statman is confident about Team Israel and its ability to make it through the European Championships, despite the short time they will have to practice together.

“A lot of the girls are playing right now, so no one will be available until end of May, beginning of June,” Iveson says. “Our first tournament is going to be at the end of June.”

Although Iveson is a bit worried about the short practice time — the team won’t be able to start practicing until they arrive in Israel — she has confidence in her players.

“T Statman is a feisty hitter that can hit good pitching as she has a short, efficient swing. She was a very good pitcher in high school, but hasn’t pitched in college,” says Iveson.

She looks forward to coaching Alexis “A.J.” Kaiser, the catcher from Syracuse University. Kaiser grew up in Tucson and played for Canyon Del Oro High School.

“I haven’t seen A.J. play in a long time, but she was a top high school hitter in Tucson and is playing for a very good college program now,” says Iveson. “She is a strong, athletic young player who was a solid catcher in high school.”

The players have to be in the top six of the European Championships and win the Olympic qualifier in the Netherlands to accomplish their goal.

“I think all these girls are D1 softball players, or were and are still playing now, so the expectation at that level of softball is that you’re getting yourself ready to play,” Statman says.

Kaiser agrees that the players won’t have an issue with getting their athletic skills up to par. “It’s not going to be the athletic ability for all of us, it’s more of connecting together as a team and getting to know each other,” she says.

Kaiser says that the trip to Israel will help the players bond, especially when they make aliyah together.

Statman is ecstatic to be given the chance to represent Israel with the other players.

“Being able to go and represent the country, the Jewish homeland, is something amazing,” Statman says.

Statman insists that they will not only be representing the country, but what the country stands for. “Israel is home,” she says.

To help the team with fundraising, visit www.jnf.org/donation-pages/olympic-baseball.