Kathleen Bannon’s softball journey has already taken her a long way from the fields where she got her start at Warwick’s Winslow Park. She played in high school championship games and countless travel team tournaments on her way to a collegiate career at the University of New Haven and the University of Tampa.
The next step on her softball journey will take her even further.
Bannon will join a team representing USA Athletes International on a two-week softball tour of Australia. She departs on Sunday – and she can’t wait.
“I felt like it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” she said.
The former Toll Gate star finished out her collegiate career at Tampa this spring. She’s on track to graduate with a master’s degree in industrial design and technology this school year.
But the end of her collegiate eligibility won’t be the end of softball. Last September, her head coach at Tampa nominated his four seniors for the Australia-bound team.
“I was the only one that took advantage of it,” Bannon said. “I couldn’t say no.”
USA Athletes International is a non-profit organization dedicated to giving amateur athletes and coaches the opportunity to compete in international events. Part of its mission is also to inspire student-athletes to broaden their educational and cultural knowledge of the world through the experience.
The softball team features collegiate players from around the country. It will take part in the Softball NSW International Challenge Series, which is held annually in Sydney. Games will be played at the facility that hosted softball at the 2000 Olympics.
“When I was a kid I used to say I wanted to play for the Olympic team,” Bannon said. “You never really think you’ll get anywhere near there. This was something I couldn’t say no to.”
The trip will be the exclamation point on a year that has represented a perfect finish to Bannon’s softball career.
When she graduated from Toll Gate, she headed to the University of New Haven. She played her freshman year there but left afterwards and took a year off.
She then hit the road for Tampa, with no guarantees that her softball career would continue. She walked on to the team.
After battling some injuries the last two seasons, she made her presence felt this year, earning a starting job and hitting over. 300 for the Spartans, a nationally-ranked Division II program.
“I had a great year,” Bannon said. “The two years prior, I had some injuries that held me back, but I had a great senior year. I started and I hit .305. I was happy.”
Playing softball in college was a longtime goal for Bannon, who began her career with Apponaug Girls Softball when she was just 5 years old.
“I wanted to play because my sister played. Then it got out of control from there,” she said with a laugh. “I never stopped. I loved college ball. Tampa was kind of the perfect fit for me. It was a great experience.”
The Australia trip is icing on the cake. Bannon, 23, has never been overseas, and her only trip out of the country was to Canada when she was younger.
When she initially found out about the opportunity, she had two weeks to respond. She didn’t need that long to decide.
“I think I was just in shock,” she said. “They gave us a lot of opportunities to fundraise the money so it all worked out really well.”
Bannon will fly by herself to Los Angeles, where she’ll connect with other members of the team. They’ll leave soon after for Sydney.
The tour will feature Olympic-style competition against teams from other countries. Teams will play six games, and the competition is likely to be the best Bannon has faced.
“I’m expecting it to be really competitive,” she said.
There will also be ample time to see Australia. Excursions include Bondi Beach, Sydney’s most famous sights, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.
“I think it’s going to be a really cool experience,” Bannon said.
When it’s over, Bannon will get set to return to school at Tampa. For the first time in a while, softball won’t dominate her life, although she might end up playing for a 19-and-up fast-pitch team that one of her teammates is on.
“I can’t not play,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Whatever happens – and wherever softball takes her from here – softball in Australia will be a special part of the journey.
“It’s such a big deal even on a collegiate scale, to go overseas and represent your country,” Bannon said. “It’s such an amazing opportunity. It’s every athlete’s dream.”