People outside of Croatia could be forgiven for thinking that Croats only played football, basketball, water polo, handball and tennis, but a number of other sports not associated with the nation, such as squash, softball, cricket and rugby are all doing their best to grow their game here. One of those sports is women’s softball, and this week Croatia Week met Petra Čizmić Pokrajac from Croatia’s most successful women’s softball club – Princ – where she talked to us about the games roots, obstacles and had a plea for the Croatian community abroad…
With softball not one of the main sports in Croatia, how did you end up getting into the game?
I started playing when i was 12 because my sister started playing. It was a fun game and I enjoyed every moment of it. Because of softball I have met a lot of interesting people, made new friendships, visited great cities and places. In 2007 I started coaching softball and working with kids. Mainly I do pitching with them but also defensive and offensive stuff. I still play but not that much and some of my team mates are girls that started in 2007. I have a 4-year old girl and I hope one day I will get a chance to see her play, but until then I am stuck with these other kids that I see as my own. The kids are mainly from my neighborhood and it feels great when you walk around and every once in a while someone comes up to you and says “hello” whether it is a kid that you coach or used to coach, or their parents or their friends that have seen you before.
How did women’s softball start in Croatia?
Softball in Croatia started in the 1970’s with the start of the Baseball club Nada (Split) and its softball section of the club. It took almost 20 years until other baseball clubs formed their softball teams. One of the first along side with “Nada” were “Princ” (Zagreb), “Olimpija” (Karlovac), “Vindija” (Varaždin). These 4 clubs played 1st Croatian Championship in 1993. Later 3 new teams were founded – “Storks” (Sisak), “Medvednica” & “Hrvatski Dragovoljac” (Zagreb). The first men softball teams were founded in 2001. Unfortunately as number of men teams was increasing, the number of women teams were decreasing. First men softball teams recruited their players mainly from baseball clubs attracting players who didn’t had time for competitive baseball league. By 2003 all women’s clubs outside Zagreb stopped playing, and the women’s league consisted of 3 teams from Zagreb.
Our club – Softball Club Princ Zagreb was founded in 1993. People who run this club for years managed to build 2 softball fields within Sports and Recreation Center Jarun. Since 1993, we have won 18 Croatian National Championships and since then we have competed in European cups continuously. We work with both girls and boys. We have a partnership deal with some of the clubs in the city and we help each other. Since there are only 2 places in Zagreb where you can actually play softball, we do our best to help others feel at home playing games at our fields. At the moment total of 5 clubs (4 men and 2 women teams) are using our fields as their own (both as for games and for practices).
How has the game been developing?
In 2007 Croatia hosted European Championship “B” pool in Zagreb where Croatia won silver medal (2nd place). It turned out to be starting point of “new softball era” in Croatia. Until 2007 the number of players in softball was declining along with number of clubs, girls had less interest in playing softball, there was no youth. Softball Club Princ Zagreb was the first one to start recruiting new players from elementary schools, mainly girls, but boys showed quite an interest also. During an indoor slowpitch tournament (winter 2007/2008) that was organized by our National Federation we got prime time before the final game and played 1st historical game between our 2 teams. Players were age 9 – 14. After other clubs saw this game, it all kind of started to develop. National Federation started to bring foreign coaches and clinics were made so the quality of the game played in Croatia would rise. Having “older” players retire from the game, both clubs and national teams had their ups and downs on international level.
We try to do our best to give our players everything they need in order to develop themselves into a good softball players. We organize friendly softball tournaments, softball summer camps (1stsoftball camp in Croatia was organized by our club and was free for all players in the country). We try to get foreign coaches to Zagreb, and organize winter softball camps and clinics. Due to this, 7 of our players made it into junior national team starting line-up at European Junior Championship (2010). In 2011 we won 6th place at European Cup Winners Cup playing mostly with girls that just turned 17 years of age which is a tournament minimum. In 2013 we won our 18th National Championship for women. Last summer we were 5th in European Cup (B pool) but next year we hope we will manage to compete for TOP 4 places.
At the moment we have 4 women teams, and 5 men teams. This is for girls and boys that have more than 19 y.o.a but some new teams have more than 50% of players playing for them with less than that. We also play U19, U16 and U13 championships. Number of teams depends on the year. Our season starts in April and “ends” in July when we have summer break. July and August are reserved for playing European Championships and Cups. We start again in September and finish in October. This last 2 months are mostly reserved for playoff games and finals in each of the category.
With softball being a minority sport in Croatia, what are the major challenges you face with trying to develop the game?
Although it is small and undiscovered, it is a fun sport for kids. We have found a way how to present it to them and how to attract them. We try to keep their interest in the game of softball at a higher level so our drop-off level is not that critical – this is why more than 40 kids play for us. Teaching them at younger level that having fun is much more important than desire to win helps us improve them as people in general also. Softball is known as family game, and we try to make them feel that their softball teammates are their new family. So we organize all kinds of events where they can hang out together besides playing softball.
“Money” – Not being an Olympic sport anymore means that funding from city (local community) and on national level is getting smaller and smaller. We hope this will change in near future. Local community supports clubs, and Olympic Committee supports national teams. We can’t complain about that part, and we are happy to get anything but when you put everything on paper, you know that you have funds for basic stuff and training. I don’t like talking about numbers but every European Cup that we attend each and every summer costs as more than we can get from local community. Just to get the idea it is about 8000$ for the 6-day tournament:(3000$ traveling costs, 2000$ accommodation costs with breakfast included, 1000$ tournament fee, 2000$ for meals for the players ) – and this is just for senior girls in the club based on a tournament in cheaper countries like Bulgaria, Check Republic or similar. Countries like Netherlands (Holland) or Italy tend to be a little more expensive. But our club management tries to overcome this with sponsorships. Unfortunately times are hard so it is harder for companies and little businesses to give money like that, especially to unknown sport in Croatia like softball. We know that money won’t fall from the sky so we organize tournaments and fundraisers to get funds that we need in order to cover the season.
“Equipment” – There are not many shops in Europe for softball and baseball. Ones that do sell equipment tend to increase the price so much that it is 2-3 times more than the cost in US. We can’t afford to buy expensive equipment. Buying the stuff in US and have it send to Europe again has its costs. If you buy item one by one you pay a lot for shipping, and if you buy a lot at one time than you have a problem with the weight of the shipment because it is shipped via air. We could use all kind of equipment, whether is new or used :stuff like gloves (fielders and batters), game balls, practice balls, cleats, training aids etc….
“Fields” – There are not many places where you could build or have softball or baseball field in Zagreb. This is why many teams don’t have a field and use our own. We have that fortune that we were able to found investors to build not only one but two fields. We are using our knowledge to help other teams develop and get fields but it takes time and patience.
With lack of funding obviously a big hurdle to advance the game here in Croatia, do you have a message for anyone who maybe interested in helping?
If there is anyone or company out there who would like to help the kids here in Croatia with equipment or funding support for tournaments and facilities ect that would really be a blessing. We also have 3 girls looking for funding for a training camp in Boston and California to develop their pitching and catching skills and any assistance would be greaty appreciated.