New Zealand's top softball players will gather in Auckland next week to press their claim for a spot in the Black Sox World Championship team.
The National Fastpitch Championships start today at North Shore's Rosedale Park and will this year double as a trial of sorts, with the national side set to be announced after the final on Sunday.
The World Championships will be held in Auckland from March 1-10 next year but preparation started soon after the 2009 event, which saw the Black Sox relinquish their crown to Australia.
"We appreciate that, for the players, selection for a world championship team is the culmination of many years of sacrifice and hard work," says coach Eddie Kohlhase.
"We have been working with an extended squad for the past four years and the 17 players selected form part of a larger squad, who have been pushing each other hard for places in the team.
"The final make-up of the side will be a balance between youth and experience, and many we feel will form the core of Black Sox sides for years to come."
Although the national side is the ultimate goal for a number of players, there is also a national title on the line.
Defending titleholders Auckland will again be a tough side to topple. The side's opening game today is against neighbours Counties-Manukau Waikato, followed by Wellington.
They will round out the opening day of action against rivals North Harbour.
Last summer's runners-up, Canterbury, ease their way into the draw against the Southern Pride, Hutt Valley and Counties-Manukau Waikato.
In the women's competition, Auckland loom as title favourites and open their campaign against newcomers Hawke's Bay.
National Fastpitch Championships, Thursday December
9am: Canterbury v Southern Pride, Hutt Valley v North Harbour
11am: Counties-Manukau Waikato v Auckland, Hawke's Bay v Wellington, Canterbury v Hutt Valley
1pm: Wellington v Auckland, Hawke's Bay v North Harbour
3pm: Canterbury v Counties-Manukau Waikato
5pm: Hawke's Bay v Hutt Valley, Wellington v Southern Pride, Auckland v North Harbour
9am: Canterbury v Counties-Manukau Waikato, Wellington v Hutt Valley
11am: Auckland v Hawke's Bay
1pm: Auckland v Canterbury, Hutt Valley v Counties-Manukau Waikato
3pm: Wellington v Hawke's Bay
5pm: Auckland v Hutt Valley
- © Fairfax NZ News