By Greg Price
It has been brothers in arms for several slo-pitch accolades as of late.
Former Taberites and brothers Jeff and Josh Zanolli represented Team Canada as part of the Men’s Slo-Pitch Border Battle in Oklahoma City from June 29-July 1.
Team Canada celebrated the birth of its nation by beating Team USA on July 1 at the Border Battle.
“It was amazing. We had a really strong, young team this year. We felt going in we had a really good shot to compete with the Americans. It’s always hard to beat them, they are so good. It is like a professional team playing a bunch of amateurs,” said Jeff Zanolli who has competed seven times at the Border Battle with Team Canada as selected by Softball Canada. “If Vegas were to handicap it, we were probably 100-1 underdogs. We were fortunate enough to catch the Americans on an off night.”
The result was a 31-28 victory for Team Canada on Canada Day.
“We beat them at their park on Canada Day. We enjoyed that,” said Zanolli who played middle infield and batted lead off for the team. “It was fun where I’m getting near the end of my career. I’m one of the older guys on the team now which I haven’t been used to. It’s a whole new feeling for me with guys in their early-mid 20s on the team now and I just turned 37. It’s fun to reverse the roles a little bit from when I first started playing on this team when I started looking up at the other guys, now they are coming to me asking questions.”
The last few years Jeff has played on Team Canada for the Border Battle, Team USA has got out to comfortable leads, forcing Team Canada to chase them.
“We had a good first couple of innings and we got comfortable. Before, we would struggle to get out of the gate and if you let them get out to a lead, it’s really hard to catch them because they are so good,” said Zanolli. “This year, we were able to keep pressure on them and we were out in the lead enough that they had to answer to what we were doing. I don’t care how good players are, if you can put them in a position of pressure, it changes things. You could feel it, the longer the game went where we were in the lead, the pressure went up. We were behind maybe one inning of the game.’”
Josh was able to join his brother Jeff for the first time playing for Team Canada at the Border Battle. “How often do you get to see that where brothers get to play together in international competition?”
“That was a lot of fun playing together on that team. That was very special for us,” said Zanolli.
The duo were also provincial champions as part of the Alberta Oilmen, a team that has had a Zanolli attached to it since 2002, where the Oilmen earned its 10th straight provincial championship in Lethbridge.
“That’s never been done before, so that’s pretty cool,” said Jeff Zanolli, as the Oilmen have grown over the years, drawing players from Fort McMurray, Grande Prairie, Lethbridge and Taber.
Jeff played middle infield while Josh was catcher for the Oilmen. The Oilmen dominated throughout provincials with its stacked lineup.
“This year’s version of the team is probably the best we’ve ever had in the history of the club. We made some additions in the winter that sort of fell in our lap. We had a guy from Ontario move to Alberta and he’s a top-three player in the country,” said Zanolli. “We are as good as we’ve ever been and we played great in Lethbridge. We controlled the tournament from start to finish. We scored a lot of runs and it was tough for teams to keep up. When you are scoring 30 runs a game, it’s tough for other teams. We got out to big leads early in games and forced teams to chase us, putting a lot of pressure on them.”
The scary thing for the Oilmen is they were earning lopsided wins at provincials even without using their maximum seven home runs allowed before outs are recorded for their big bashers hitting the ball over the fence.
“Our home run management was really good. Our team is built to have power all the way through the tournament. So a three-run home run or if the bases ever get loaded, a grand slam can come from anywhere,” said Zanolli. “Other teams have to wait for the middle of their order to come up. There were games we scored in the 30s and we didn’t hit all of our homers.”
Slo-pitch softball is a hitter’s game, especially at the elite level, making the defensive side extremely difficult given the exit velocity of balls hit off of bats.
“The game is played at a high rate of speed now. The ball exits the bat upwards of 95 to 100 miles per hour. So when you are standing 80 to 100 feet away, the ball is getting there in an awful hurry,” said Zanolli. “If a team is out of home runs early or trying to save them, the easiest way to get a hit is a hard ground ball through the middle of the diamond. If you are not on your toes, you are going to get one. Lots of guys now are wearing masks in the infield because the ball is coming so fast.”
Jeff and Josh are off to the Men’s Slo-Pitch Canadian Championships in Montreal which run Aug. 13-19.
It will continue a family tradition of slo-pitch which the brothers got hold of at an early age after playing primarily baseball in their youth in Taber and surrounding area.
“We were baseball players, but when we were 16-17-18, just finishing high school, we would go play slo-pitch with my dad (Alvaro) and the guys he was playing with in the men’s league and got introduced to it,” said Zanolli as he and his brother grew up in the Taber Catholic school system. “My parents played as we were growing up so we’ve been around the game since we were four years old. We’ve always had an affinity for it and a love for it. It’s fun, you meet new people.”
Josh Zanolli now lives in Olds with Jeff in Lethbridge in which Jeff noted the support of their better halves would not make playing slo-pitch at an elite level possible with the travel it entails.
“Family is a big part of it. We don’t get paid for any of this, it’s amateur sport and your families make sacrifices with us being gone for four or five days where the wife and kids stay home,” said Zanolli.