CHAPMANVILLE — Modern day Japan is known for its 21st Century cities, breathtaking scenery, its culture, its fashion, its world class restaurants, nightlife and entertainment and its warm hospitality to foreign visitors.
In the athletic scene, Japan is known for its passionate fans and for its love of baseball and softball.
With all of that said, Andi Williamson will fit right in.
Williamson, a 2009 Chapmanville Regional High School graduate and former softball player for Chapmanville and Harts high schools and also for Marshall University, is about to embark on a trip and experience of a lifetime.
In a matter of days, Williamson will be heading to the Far East to play in the Japanese Women’s Professional Softball League.
Williamson said she will be heading to Chicago and will be hopping on a plane — a more than 14-hour flight across 12 time zones and past the International Date Line — to Tokyo, Japan.
Williamson, who played professionally last summer for the Chicago Bandits of our own National Professional Fastpitch League, will be playing for Japan’s Team Toda, a team located near Tokyo.
A lot of softball will be on tap for Williamson in the coming months.
The Japanese league season runs from March until June.
Then at the conclusion of the season, she will be coming back to the United States in early June to join the Bandits for her second year with the NPF team.
After the Chicago Bandits’ season is over, it’s back to Japan in late August to rejoin her Team Toda teammates for another season of softball.
Williamson, who signed a contract in California last month with Team Toda, said she’s excited to be going to play in Japan. With her charm, down home personality and All-American good looks she should fit in nicely with her new surroundings.
“I’m really excited to go. I can’t wait,” said Williamson, who was in town on Saturday night and in attendance at the Chapmanville-Poca boys’ basketball game at CRHS. “I’m nervous to be that far away from home. I was homesick at Tennessee but this will be a lot bigger experience. I’m going to be playing for Team Toda of the TMG, the Todachu Medical Group. They own all of the hospitals in Japan. That’s the name of the sponsor for our team.”
After leading Chapmanville to the Class AA state championship in 2009, Williamson initially went to the University of Tennessee to play softball.
It didn’t work out as Williamson only got to pitch a handful of innings. She transferred to Marshall and pitched for the Herd for three seasons, breaking many school records and leading MU to the 2013 Conference USA championship and the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
Last summer, Williamson pitched well in her rookie season of pro ball with the Chicago Bandits.
Williamson said she will be flying to Japan soon to join her new team.
“I leave February 28 and I’ll be there until about June 6 or 7. Then I will fly straight back to Chicago,” Williamson said. “I’ll be in Chicago until August 23rd until the end of the NPF season and then the next day on August 24 I’ll be back in Japan until mid-November. I’ll be gone from West Virginia about nine months.”
Williamson said she will be joined in the Japanese league by a handful of American women. Ironically, two of her teammates at Chicago — former U.S. Olympican Monica Abbott and Megan Wiggins — will be playing for rival teams in the Japan pro league.
“Monica Abbott will play for Team Toyota out of Tokyo and Megan Wiggins will be playing for Team Denso,” Williamson said. “I will have the opportunity to play against them. That will be fun. They chose eight Americans to go over to Japan. They usually choose the top eight so I’m really anxious to go over and get to play in this league and get this experience.”
One of the exciting things about the Japanese women’s pro softball league is their use of “National League” rules if you will.
There’s no DH.
That means the pitchers have to bat.
That’s fine with Andi.
Despite her pleads, Williamson was not able to bat at either Tennessee or Marshall.
She didn’t get to hit last summer for the Bandits either.
To find the last time Williamson stepped into the batter’s box you would have to go all the way back to the 2009 Class AA state tournament in Vienna when she led the Lady Tigers to wins over Independence (5-0 and 2-0) and Point Pleasant (1-0), capping off Chapmanville’s 31-3 season.
If you remember, Williamson was pretty good with the bat as well and was able to reach the fence on many swings.
In her final prep game in ‘09 against Independence Williamson struck out twice and walked in her last at bat. In the earlier win in the ‘09 state tourney against Independence she had a double. As a pitcher, she finished 22-1 on the hill for Chapmanville in the ‘09 season with a 0.09 ERA and was the state’s player of the year.
“I’m so excited to get a chance to bat. I’ve got my bat out and I’ve been practicing,” Williamson said. “I haven’t hit since high school. My Chicago Bandits coach told me that if I hit well over in Japan that he’ll let me bat this summer, so hopefully that will work out.”
Williamson said she has missed batting over the years.
“The last time I batted in a game was in the state championship game,” she said. “I do miss hitting because hitting was where I could go and relax. In pitching you are more focused but hitting was where I could go up there to the plate, relax, take a deep breath and take my frustrations out on the ball.”
Williamson said the Japanese women’s league is different.
“The good thing is that in Japan we only play two games on the weekends,” she said. “But the practice schedule is a lot different there. We will practice from 12 o’clock until 6:30 p.m. in the night. We will have very long practices in Japan. It’s all about ball and I’m real excited about that. They have three divisions of teams in the Japanese league with Division I, Division II and Division III. I will be in Division I, the top league. Only four teams have Americans — two on each team. There are some teams that are filled with just Japanese girls.”
Williamson said she’s not at all concerned about culture shock and the language barrior that she might encounter.
“They treat the American players very well over there,” she said. “We will get massages after the games and things like that. I’m excited to go play over there. They say that it’s completely different but I think that I’ll love it.”
Located halfway around the world, Japan is currently 14 hours ahead of the U.S. Eastern Time Zone. After the time change to Daylight Savings Time on March 9 it will be a 13-hour difference.
“There is a huge time zone difference but I will still hope to get to talk to my family in the morning and at night,” Williamson said.
While in Japan, Williamson said she will be keeping up with her friends, family and fans via social media with Facebook and Twitter.
She said some of the Japanese league games will be streamed live over the internet and hopes to pass on that information later. The broadcasts, of course, will be in Japanese with Japanese announcers but you will still be able to see the action, Williamson noted.
“Some of the games will be streamed on the internet,” Williamson said. “I have Facebook and I’ll be able to keep in touch and let everyone know when the games will be coming on.”
When the Japanese league season is over, Williamson will head back to Chicago to rejoin her Bandits’ team.
The Bandits are scheduled to open the 2014 season on May 29, a week earlier than last year, with a two-game set at Akron against the Racers.
The four affiliate teams will compete in nine different venues across six different states with the 2014 season culminating at the NPF Championship Series which will be held in Hoover, Ala., August 20-23.
The game on May 29 will open the season for the league, as the USSSA Pride and Pennsylvania Rebellion will open their season on Friday, May 30. The 2014 season will be the inaugural season for the Rebellion, which replaces the New York/New Jersey Comets. Each team will play each other 16 times while every team will host 24 home games with an equal amount of road games for a total of 96 regular season games.
Looking to defend their 2013 regular season championship, the Bandits, which finished with a record of 36-12, will return home to take on the Racers in a four-game series beginning on Saturday, May 31 before heading back to Akron for another two-game series. The Bandits will return home for four games against the defending Cowles Cup Champion, USSSA Pride, beginning Saturday, June 7.
The Pride beat the Bandits two games to one in last year’s NPF championship series, which was broadcast on ESPN2. Some of the other games were streamed on ESPN3.
“We had a great team,” Williamson said. “We had a great experience. We made it all the way to the finals but we weren’t able to finish it. This year, that is our goal. Anything less than a league championship will be unsatisfactory for us. Everyone has been working hard and everyone has been using that loss as motivation to work hard and to get to where we need to be this summer.”
Two of Williamson’s Chicago teammates last year were from Japan.
Williamson’s mother Beth, said she will miss being able to see Andi regularly while she is in Japan, but the family realizes it is an “opportunity for her daughter to display her talents.”
Andi Williamson’s father is former Harts and Marshall star basketball player Andy Paul Williamson. The family resides at Harts.
Last year for the Bandits, Williamson had a 9-2 record during the regular season with a 1.67 ERA — one of the best in the league. She was named as the league’s rookie of the year at season’s end.
At Marshall, Williamson was a record-breaking pitcher. She led Conference USA in number of wins in 2011 and set a Marshall record of 33 wins with 364 strikeouts during her senior year. She closed out her three-year career at Marshall with 731 strikeouts and helped lead the Herd into the NCAA Tournament for the first time.
In the NCAAs, Williamson led Marshall to a win over Notre Dame in Lexington, Ky. The Herd lost two heartbreakers to Virginia Tech and Kentucky to get eliminated.
In high school, Williamson took on the West Virginia softball scene by storm in her freshman year as she led Harts High School to the Class A state championship game in a 1-0 loss to Wheeling Central.
After the closure of Harts High School at the end of the 2005-06 school year, she headed to Chapmanville with Lady Lion teammates such as Poppy Ramey, Lauren McCann and others and helped lead CRHS to the 2007 Class AA state championship.
Two years later, Williamson and the Lady Tigers again won the state title.
Just last month, Williamson signed again with the Chicago Bandits for a second season.
Bandits’ GM Aaron Moore said he was happy to get Andi back with the Bandits, which are based in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont, Ill.
“The organization is excited to have Andi back for the 2014 season,” Moore said. “She originally came to Rosemont looking to try out, but we instantly knew she would fit in to our roster after watching her throw a few times. She is one of the fiercest competitors the league has in the circle and I know the team and fans get fired up when she’s pitching. We’re fortunate to have her on our team and we’re looking at her to be a major contributor this season.”
Williamson made 13 starts for Chicago last summer and had the third-best ERA in the league. In addition, Williamson allowed just 67 hits and 33 runs while striking out 50 batters in 75.1 innings pitched.
“I can’t wait to rejoin the Bandits again this summer,” Williamson said. “Everyone is working hard this off-season to bring that NPF Championship back to Rosemont. It’s going to be great year so I’m excited to get back there and start playing.”
Instantly a fan favorite in Rosemont, Williamson was named not only the NPF Rookie of the Year but also the Bandits Rookie of the Year at the team’s end-of-the year banquet. Each award handed out at the banquet was voted on solely by the fans. She was also named to the 2013 All-NPF squad at the NPF Awards Banquet.
Williamson’s Chicago teammmate Abbott has played for Team Toyota for six years.
“Playing softball in Japan has been such a blessing to me,” Abbott wrote in her blog. “Time has flown by! I guess that’s what happens when you’re having fun. Time flies when you are playing a game you love.”
Japan has a rich tradition in women’s softball.
The Japanese Women’s National Team finished fourth place at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. They improved on that by winning Silver at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and Bronze at the 2004 Athens Games. In 2008 in Beijing, Japan won the Gold at the Olympics.
The 2008 Games would be the last Olympics for softball and baseball, at least for the time being as the sports were discontinued by the International Olympic Committee for the 2012 London Games.
Softball and baseball will not be back in Rio in 2016 either as a joint bid to the IOC was rejected. Instead of bringing back softball and baseball, the IOC instead chose to include rugby sevens and golf as new sports for the 2016 Games.
Baseball and softball are hoping to make a return to the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, which will be held in Tokyo. Japan last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964, also in Tokyo.