During the spring break, a group of female rugby players from Merritt Secondary School paid a visit to New Zealand to play some exhibition games, take in the countryside, and absorb a whole bunch of the culture from the land down under.

Later this month, nine softball players and coaches with ties to the Nicola Valley will be making a similar once-in-a-lifetime journey — to participate in the World Masters Games in Auckland and the neighbouring region of Waikato, from April 21 to 30.

All but one of the group from the Merritt area are members of a Salish Nation team that will compete in the 45+ recreational softball division at the Games.They are players Mary-June Coutlee, Molly Toodlican, Barbara Huston, Rhonda Ned,  Stacy Coutlee and Laura Antoine, along with head coach Mitch Shuter.

Former Nicola Valley resident Barry Jackson, who now lives in Chase, will also be part of the Salish Nation coaching staff, while local player Debra Manuel will be playing for a team from Perth, Australia at the New Zealand Masters Games.

The rest of the 16-member Salish Nation squad hails from the Okanagan and Shuswap areas of the province. There is also one player from Victoria and one from Lillooet.

This is not the first venture overseas for many of the Nicola Valley players, as several attended the 2013 World Masters Games in Italy.

Three members of the group — Toodlican, MJ Coutlee and Manuel — will be attending their fourth Masters championships, as they also went to Edmonton in 2005 and Sydney, Australia in 2009.

Toodlican said that getting ready for the trip to New Zealand has been a lot of work for the Salish Nation team. “I’m glad it’s only every four years,” she added with a laugh.

Each player has had to raise about $4,200 to pay for the flight, ground transportation, accommodation and food.

Much of the money, said Toodlican, has been raised through 50/50s, loonie auctions, as well as yard and craft sales.

Not all the players have the same trip itinerary. Toodlican and a few others are flying out on April 15, and spending a couple of days in Hawaii, before travelling on to Auckland. They also plan to stay about three extra days in New Zealand after the Games are over to do some additional sightseeing.

Practices over the winter months have been a challenge for the Salish Nation team. They manage to get together in small groups wherever and whenever possible. The Nicola Valley contingent has been working out regularly at the Lower Nicola Band School gymnasium.

Toodlican is one of four team pitchers, along with Antoine, Doreen Rice (Victoria) and Juanita Kruger (Penticton).

At the World Masters Games, there are a total of 24 teams in the same division (45+ recreational) as the Salish Nation.

The Salish team is  in Pool B, along with five other teams from Canada.

“It’s a bit disappointing that we’re only playing Canadian teams at first,” said Toodlican, “but we’ll meet up with other teams from other countries once the quarterfinals begun.”

Ironically, the Salish Nation’s first opponents, on April 22, will be the North American Native Sisters from the Six Nations region of Ontario.

“That’s the team that I played for in Italy four years ago,” said Toodlican.

Regardless of whom they play, you can bet that the whole experience for the Nicola Valley softball players will be a memorable one.

About the World Masters Games

The World Masters Games is expected to attract 25,000 athletes from over 100 countries.

It is is the world’s largest multi-sport event. Held every four years, it is the pinnacle sporting event for masters competitors worldwide. In supporting the Olympic ethos of ‘sport for all,’ the goal of the World Masters Games is to encourage participation in sport throughout life. Competition and camaraderie are celebrated equally.

The first World Masters Games were held in Toronto in 1985. Since then seven other cities have embraced the global event, including Sydney, Australia in 2009 and Torino, Italy in 2013.

Two of the philosophies of the World Masters Games are: to promote friendship and understanding along with competition between mature sports people, regardless of age, gender, race, religion or sport status.

The 2017 World Masters Games in New Zealand will bring together over 25,000 athletes from more than 100 countries to take part in 28 different sports: archery, athletics, badminton, baseball, basketball, canoe, cycling, football, golf, hockey, lawn bowls, netball, orienteering, rowing, rugby, sailing, shooting, softball, squash, surf lifesaving, swimming, table tennis, tennis, touch, triathlon, volleyball, water polo and weightlifting.

All sports competitions are run in accordance with international federation rules and regulations. Each sport offers men’s and women’s competitions.