Former team captain of the RP Blu Girls, Cheska Altomonte tells The GAME about her experiences in softball and the potential she sees.
When Cheska Altomonte played her last game with the Philippine Women’s National Softball Team in 2019, she did not think she would come back as a player. She was ready to take on different roles on the team instead. But, when she was asked by her coach to play again in the 2023 Women’s Softball World Cup, even after tearing her MCL last year and having just recovered, she put on her boots and helped the team to a successful run that saw the RP Blu Girls come back from three straight losses to make it to the playoffs.
It was well worth the unexpected comeback. But, its worth never seemed in question for Cheska, who dedicated her life to the sport.
Cheska has been playing softball her entire life, coming from a family of baseball players. She joined the national team in 2013, and after graduating from college, she faced a lot of back and forth, juggling full-time work and full-time training with the team. But even as she shifted between her job and her sport throughout the years, she always remained dedicated to the team. Even when she wasn’t on the pitch, captaining the squad, she was off elsewhere, helping out with team organization, logistics, or even marketing.
Now, she is taking up a graduate degree in Sports Organization Management and is also the Secretary-General and Board Member of the Philippine Softball Federation.
“When you love the sport, right?” she said to The GAME, highlighting her years in the sport.
Her belief and passion for Philippine softball are true drivers of the team’s success, and it shined through in the team’s recent World Cup run.
A comeback run
The Philippines’ run at the recent 2023 Women’s Softball World Cup was a whirlwind for the team. It was their first major tournament after their long hiatus over the pandemic, they had a relatively young squad, and they were part of Group C of the tournament — one of the toughest groups in the World Cup, as they were faced with powerhouse nations, including three who qualified for the previous Olympics.
“Just imagine how tough that bracket was compared to the others,” Cheska Altomonte expressed. “So yeah, we started off slow, not as great as we wanted to.”
The Blu Girls began their campaign with losses to powerhouse teams Canada, Japan, and Venezuela, and with only two games left, things did not seem promising. Thus, the team felt the pressure coming into their following matches, where they faced New Zealand and Italy. Both were must-wins if they wanted a shot at making the playoffs. Luckily, pressure is a feeling that veteran player Cheska openly welcomes.
“We really had to talk again because there were lots of lapses and the pressure was definitely there, especially for the rookies and the newer girls who didn’t have experience playing at this level yet, because it’s a World Cup,” Cheska reflected. “It’s a hard bracket, but no excuses. Let’s win.”
Not running away from pressure, but using it to fuel themselves, the RP Blu Girls defeated both New Zealand and Italy to cap off their group stage still in the competition.
They made it to the playoffs with this pair of comeback wins, even after the exhaustion that came with double-headers (two games in one day), weather delays that sent them back and forth from their hotel, and late-night games.
After their victory against Italy, the Philippine team had to wake up the following morning for their first match of the playoffs, again put up against Italy. This time, however, the Italians had a new fire within them that would see them advance to the next stage of the tournament and would send the Philippines packing.
Despite the exit from the World Cup after the first round of the playoffs, Cheska was incredibly proud of the team’s performance, having made it this far into the tournament after facing some of the strongest players in the world.
“Even if we lost, it was a really good game and it’s something that we carry with us.”
The Philippines on the world stage
The Philippine team’s performance in the 2023 Softball World Cup truly showed that against the odds — the team’s long hiatus, a relatively inexperienced squad, and minimal facilities in the country — the country’s representatives are strong enough to compete at the top level in the sport.
“I’ve always believed that the Philippines can be competitive on the international stage,” Cheska Altomonte asserted. “It’s something that Filipino athletes can really succeed in, but we’ve always been the underdogs because we don’t have as many resources as other countries.”
Right before the pandemic hit, the RP Blu Girls were ranked 11th in the world and only went down the pecking order over the last couple of years because they were unable to play during the pandemic. But before this, the Philippines has gone up against the majority of teams within the current top 20 rankings and won.
In fact, to drive her point that “We are very competitive,” Cheska named the teams in the top 20 that the Blu Girls have competed against in the past — Australia, Canada, Mexico, Chinese Taipei, Italy, Netherlands, Czech Republic, China, Venezuela.
Indeed, the Philippines sit among the top teams in the world when it comes to softball. The Blu Girls consistently compete against the best of the best and they have proven that they can win. On top of this, another aspect that the country can be proud of is that currently, a big chunk of the team is comprised of homegrown talents. With this, the potential for the sport and the team is very high.
“Now, it has come to a point in the program where you’re seeing the homegrown players playing at a much higher level. So, of course, my ultimate goal is to get a team that is majority homegrown,” she shared.
But, there are still challenges that softball in the Philippines faces.
The realities of softball in the Philippines
As someone who has been with the Philippines’ national softball team for a decade in multiple roles — as a player, a captain, a manager, a federation head — Cheska Altomonte knows better than most the struggles that come with being a softball player in the country. One of the biggest challenges she names is the amount of exposure the team gets.
In the Philippines, UAAP softball is a major tournament. But, it does not get more major than that. Apart from competing on the national team, a softball player’s opportunities become much more limited after college with no professional leagues in the country. On top of this, Cheska also explained that the team only competes against other international teams during competitions. With this, the lack of exposure and opportunities to play is one of the biggest hurdles the team has to overcome in order to stay competitive on the world stage.
“The women’s team does not have any opponents,” she explained. “It’s something that is very important and something that we need, and we’re trying to work it out in the program. Softball is a very expensive sport.”
Another challenge the team faces is the lack of facilities. As Cheska Altomonte herself mentioned, softball is indeed a very expensive sport. Equipment is not cheap, and ballparks are not the most easily accessible.
But, in spite of these challenges, the Blu Girls have prevailed numerous times over. Against countries with better access to exposure and facilities, the Philippines does not only put up a fight, but they win. And now, with a roster of homegrown players, this shows that the softball program in the country is definitely promising.
Take away a few hurdles and provide more to the sport, and the boundaries begin to blur all the more. Whatever they have already achieved could amount to a lot more, and this is something that Cheska is actively working towards.
A dream for the sport, for the athletes
Toward the end of the year, the Blu Girls will be competing in the Asian Games, where they will be fighting for a spot on the podium — a spot they frequently miss out on by mere margins. And this may be the last time Cheska Altomonte competes for the national team.
But, this will be a far cry from goodbye. In fact, Cheska now remains, more than ever, dedicated to seeing the sport thrive.
Cheska has dedicated the better part of her life to softball because of her belief in the country’s talent. She has seen it for herself — the Philippines can be among the best in the world. The potential is there, and she wants to inch closer and closer to turning potential into reality.
Given her role in the Federation, Cheska shared that she would like her main focus to be on the grassroots program in the Philippines.
“I think there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done with the grassroots program. The coaches need more or better access to new material. Because again, if the end goal is to really make a competitive homegrown team, it starts there with the grassroots.”
Although her main focus would be on helping the country set stronger foundations for national athletes, Cheska also explained that the national team would still be among the top priorities of the Federation.
“My goal for the team would definitely be to consistently be in the top three in Asia and in the top 10 in the world. That’s what I want to see for the Philippines,” she asserted. To see this through, her goal would be to help the team find more opportunities for competition.
A top 10 ranking is not a far cry for the RP Blu Girls, especially given our previous ranking of 11th in the world. If anything, her goal is something that is already well within reach. And with passionate individuals very much like herself, who believe in the sport so much so that she has dedicated their life to it, the future is certainly promising.
Images from WBSC.