TORONTO – A lot’s happened to Alli Schroder in the four years since she helped Canada beat the United States in the bronze-medal game at the 2018 Women’s Baseball World Cup.

The 20-year-old right-hander from Fruitvale, B.C., graduated from high school. She fought through pandemic isolation to continue her baseball development. She worked hard enough to land a roster spot with Vancouver Island University and became the first woman to play in the Canadian Collegiate Baseball Conference. She crossed the Pacific to play in the Australian Women’s Baseball Showcase, an event with many of the best players in the world.

An impressive set of accomplishments on its own.

Yet in the midst of all that, Schroder also picked up certifications in chainsaw operation, First Aid and other training to fight forest fires, something she’s done since she was 15. All of that came in handy last summer when relentless wildfires tore through British Columbia.

“When it gets that bad, we roll on 14-day shifts, so 14 days on, two days off,” she says. “I found that was quite strenuous having to do that. And then, you come off the fire line after a 14-hour day and to think about picking up a baseball, it’s not the easiest thing to do. That really pushed my boundaries mentally but it was good for me because now I think about things like training for an event like Thunder Bay or World Cup and I’m excited about it, I’m stoked because I know that I’ve been through things that are harder.”

No doubt and Schroder will be front-and-centre Thursday night when she starts for the Canadian women’s national team in the opener of a five-game Friendship Series against the United States in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Games will be streamed here)

The event is the first full-squad gathering for the Canadians since the pandemic struck in 2019 and marks an important stride back toward normalcy for the program.

There’s been plenty of turnover on the roster, with mainstays like Ashley Stephenson (who will serve as manager with Aaron Myette away for personal reasons) and Kate Psota transitioning into coaching roles.

Eight rookies are on the roster while players like Schroder, Claire Eccles of White Rock, B.C., and Alexane Fournier of St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., taking on bigger leadership roles.

Scattered across the country and separated by pandemic closures and other challenges, the women were left to communicate virtually about what they were doing while trying to maintain some level of cohesion with everyone essentially forced into their own lanes.

Their inactivity is reflective of the wider pause within the women’s game internationally, as the Women’s Baseball World Cup in 2020 was pushed to 2021 and then cancelled, with the next edition slated for 2024.

The uncertain calendar made it hard for the program’s older players, off building non-baseball careers, “to say, ‘OK, I’m still going to get up every morning and train, even though I don’t know what I’m training for,’” says Schroder. “Communication between our coaching staff and the new team members, and older team members helping the younger girls move into the program, has really been key.”

Timing wasn’t an issue for Schroder, who decided that she was intent on playing college baseball once she graduated from high school and wasn’t going to let anything get in her way, not the pandemic, not fighting forest fires.

At times, she trained on her own in rural B.C., and when the fires struck, she had to be creative.

“Training for me quite literally looked like bringing my baseball glove and a couple of Driveline balls to a fire camp and then finding a fence,” she says. “I was just doing anything I possibly could to keep my mechanics clean and my arm strong as well so I would come into college with the velo that I always had. It was definitely a fight. But also being from the area that I am in British Columbia, I don’t have somebody that can catch me. That’s always been a challenge for me. I’ve built these routines in the off-season and when I’m not playing with a team that I know will help me keep my body ready for the next competition.”

Staying ready for Vancouver Island University’s baseball team was a priority.

She committed to the school – where she’s studying to become a resource management officer – in the spring of 2021, finding both the education she wanted and a team interested in her as a player and not “a PR thing where I sign and sit on the bench.”

To make sure that was the case, Paul Mrazek, her coach on the Cranbrook Bandits American Legion Baseball team she grew up playing on, pitched her to Vancouver Island University head coach Nick Salahub in a creative way.

“(Mrazek) reached out to (Salahub) and said, ‘Hey, we have an individual that can throw 80 and has a good slider and good command of the off-speed. And he said, ‘We’re in, we’re down for it.’ And that’s when my coach said, ‘She’s a girl.’ And (Salahub) couldn’t have cared less because he knew I was a player that was going to come and grind and contribute to the team. The big thing for me in choosing VIU was that they respected me as a player,” said Schroder.

After a summer fighting forest fires, Schroder debuted in the fall but missed a chunk of the spring season while in Australia for the women’s showcase. The Friendship Series is her latest test when she faces the Americans for the first time since providing 4.1 innings of relief to close out the bronze-medal games.

This time around, the U.S. will face a pitcher that’s far more battle-tested and a question she often gets from coaches and teammates is how her experience fighting fires helps on the mound.

“I used to go through those mental ups and downs where I’d be really high or I’d be really low,” Schroder says. “But I’ve been in situations where it’s like, OK, here we go, we have a wildfire, we have four houses, we need to protect all four houses and the fire is going to be here in five minutes. Getting on the mound in a big game, sure it’s intimidating. But I can just remember that I’ve been in real-life situations where the pressure is 10 times more and that I’m coming back to playing the game that I love, no matter how much pressure there is. And that’s really something that’s helped keep me calm.”

This content was originally published here.