Last chance for Black Sox world champs hopefuls at national club tournament
Black Sox hopefuls will be playing for world championships places as well as club glory at the national interclub men's softball championships in Christchurch this week.
This is the last opportunity to impress Black Sox head coach Mark Sorenson before he names a 17-man squad to contest July's world series in Canada.
Sorenson said after winning last month's Challenge Cup international tournament in Auckland that the selectors had finalised "close to two-thirds" of the lineup. But he stressed some slots were still open, including pitching and catching berths.
Fringe players now get a final chance to ink their names onto Sorenson's sheet, adding extra spice to the tournament, which starts at Mizuno Ballpark on Wednesday.
Twenty-one teams will contest four sections to finalise a top-eight for the playoffs phase.
The field includes nine former title winners with Mt Albert Ramblers, Auckland United, Hutt Valley Dodgers and new Canterbury champions Papanui the top seeds in each section.
Ramblers, coached by Black Sox captain Nathan Nukunuku, have two international pitchers, Andrew Kirkpatrick (Australia) and Kento Okazaki (Japan) alongside New Zealand's star shortstop Cole Evans and 2016-17 Black Sox Zane van Lieshout and Conor Peden.
United have won the last five Auckland premiership titles. Black Sox outfielder Ben Enoka has been struggling with an injury, but his brothers Thomas and Campbell will be on deck along with New Zealand pitcher Bayley Pearson-Hoani and Alfons Oveinikovas, whose walk-off home run earned United victory in last weekend's Auckland grand final.
Dodgers have a pitching staff to rival Ramblers with senior Black Sox hurler Nik Hayes backed by ex-junior international Brad Worsley. They have a solid hitting lineup behind them, including Black Sox team mates Joel Evans and Cory Timu, plus veterans Craig Wallace and Scott Cartwright.
Papanui won their first Canterbury title for 41 years last weekend and player-coach Thomas Makea has four pitchers at his disposal. Ethan Johnston is the ace in the roster and could be knocking on the Black Sox's door if he produces a top tournament. Makea and seasoned Black Sox infielder Tyron Bartorillo leads a side stacked with talented youngsters Reilly Makea, Callum Bishop and Jackson Watt.
Auckland Marist, coached by former Black Sox boss Eddie Kohlhase, Poneke Kilbirnie, Northcote and Johnsonville are the second seeds in each section.
Marist have former New Zealand southpaw pitcher Heinie Shannon and highly-rated Junior Black Sox ace Daniel Chapman with Jerome Haretuku and Duane Jerard in the batting rota.
PK, 12-time winners between 1987 and 2011, have past and present Black Sox Jovaan Hanley, Campbell Makea and Dan Tarapi, but will miss injured infield star Jerome Raemaki. Hanley will shoulder pitching responsibilities, assisted by big-hitting Joel Harris.
Brad Rona - making a late bid to clinch a place at his sixth world championships - will lead a Northcote side including sons Pita and Kaleb, plus Black Sox outfielder Hohepa Monk.
Johnsonville's Josh Pettett, who pitched the Black Sox to the Challenge Cup final win over Argentina, will have support from Samoan hurler Zane Siolo.
Beyond the leading seeds, Canterbury club Albion - both former champions - and Howick could force their way into the top eight.
Howick's Campbell Gibson has been the best pitcher in Auckland this season, but has had recent injury challenges.
Albion spearhead Penese Iosefo could cement his Black Sox place with consistent displays in Christchurch. He will get some hurling help from young understudy Kev Papuni but should be pitching most of the big games. New Zealand infielder Josh Harbrow and Canterbury Red Sox stalwart Ant Stuart provide a young Albion side with vital experience.
Softball New Zealand events manager Eugene Gilbert said the tournament was expected to start on time despite several days of heavy rain in Christchurch.
Post-section playoffs begin on Friday with the final on Sunday.