Ex-Fresno State softball catcher Nichole Willis gives baseball a try with Team USA

08/31/2014 10:56 PM

10/15/2014 8:41 AM

Over the past three months, "life's been a little crazy" for Clovis native Nichole Willis.

Fulfilling a promise to a friend, the ex-Clovis High and Fresno State softball catcher has turned it into a trip to Japan where she is now a member of Team USA at the biennial Women's Baseball World Cup.

It started in June, when Willis made a promise to best friend Emilie Hall and Hall's 11-year-old daughter, Ashlie Sutton.

Willis had heard of USA Baseball and its women's team two years earlier, admitting she was interested. So with Ashlie's own baseball season starting, the three agreed Willis should give the sport a try, too.

After two rounds of tryouts, Willis was one of 20 selected for the U.S. team.

"I am in Japan with USA across my chest," Willis said from Japan via text message, "all because of the support and promise I made to my best friend and her daughter."

It wasn't an easy conversion from softball to baseball for the 29-year-old, who also is an assistant for the Sacramento State softball team.

As a catcher, going from handling underhand pitches to a pitcher throwing overhand has been the biggest of Willis' challenges. The differences, she said, are "night and day."

"We all think the games are so similar but they are not," Willis said. "I have learned so much in these past two weeks about the game of baseball. It is very complex. I have had to pick things up rather quickly," she said.

Willis spent those two weeks at Team USA's training camp in Malibu in Southern California, where she played in the first eight baseball games of her life.

"I'm just filled with so many mixed emotions, from excitement to nervousness. It has always been a dream of mine to wear USA across my chest. I want to make my country proud and further the good reputation of women's baseball," Willis said.

"It is all so very surreal and it is so short. I feel that if I blink I will miss it."

The U.S. team left Thursday night for Japan. The tournament, sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation, will be played in Miyazaki at the 11,000-seat Ivy Stadium and 30,000-seat Sun Marine Stadium.

The USA is in Pool B with Taiwan, Canada and Netherlands. The Americans were opening against Taiwan in a game that was to begin at 10:30 p.m. PDT Sunday, or 2:30 p.m. today in Japan.

There are four others in Pool A: Australia, Hong Kong, Venezuela and defending champion Japan.

Each nation will play six games over the next seven days. Pool play goes through Wednesday. The second round is Friday and Saturday, with the medal games Sunday.

The U.S. won the Women's World Cup in 2004 and 2006. The Americans also reached the gold-medal game in 2012, but settled for silver after losing to Japan.

Fans can follow along on Twitter at @USABaseballWNT and @WomensBWC or online at ibaf.org.

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