Captain puts Red ahead
Team success at the National Fastpitch Championship is more important than personal ambition for Canterbury Red Sox captain Gareth Cook.
He would love to hear his name read out in the Black Sox world championship squad on Sunday, but his priority is helping Canterbury win their second national men's title in three seasons at the eight-team men's NFC tournament, starting in Auckland today.
Canterbury colleagues Daniel Milne and Tyron Bartorillo are widely regarded as Black Sox certainties and pitcher Penese Iosefo is still very much in the frame after making national squads for the past three years.
South Island softball fans still can't fathom why Cook isn't a Black Sox regular but the 34-year-old outfielder will not be holding his breath when coach Eddie Kohlhase clears his throat to read out his 17-man squad for the March world championship in Auckland.
"To be fair, I think the team is pretty much picked.
"I would love to play, I'm definitely available. But if my time is done, in the eyes of the selectors, I will do all I can to help other guys. The more Canterbury players we can get in the Black Sox, the better."
Cook represented New Zealand at the 2009 world championships in Saskatoon, Canada, and has been one of the most consistent performers on the domestic scene, but was overlooked for the first couple of seasons after Saskatoon.
He was selected for last winter's tour of North America, but his wife had just had their first baby and he could not travel.
The Black Sox's loss is Canterbury's gain. Cook and catcher Stephen Ratu led the Red Sox to their first national crown in 15 years just two days before last February's earthquake.
Canterbury were second last year, losing their title to Auckland, but they are one of the red-hot favourites to make a fourth consecutive NFC final.
The Red Sox did not have their habitual armchair ride in the Jefferies Cup last weekend, grabbing the winning run in the tiebreaker after trailing Marlborough 8-0 in the final. They also lost to Otago - their first reverse to a South Island team in 20 years - and edged out Marlborough only 3-2 in section play.
Cook said Canterbury showed character to come back in the final, but the South Island tournament showed that their pitching needed to go up a gear at the NFC.
Iosefo is carrying a rib injury into the tournament after a recent car accident and Canterbury's hopes could hinge on how head coach Greg Newton and pitching coach Murray Britt rotate Iosefo, Scott Sutherland and left-hander Aiden Cocker.
"Our hitting will be our strength - I don't think we're going to win many games 1-0," Cook said.
Milne and former Black Sox first baseman Darren Davies return to a Red Sox lineup already replete with proven hitters like Cook, Bartorillo, Ratu, Matt Holmes, Steve McFarlane and the vastly improved third baseman Josh Harbrow.
"Darren Davies will strengthen us defensively and offensively and a couple of players, like Josh Harbrow, have matured a lot and will be quite important for us towards the bottom of our lineup."
Holmes has developed into one New Zealand's most consistent hitters and Cook expects him to add some substance to the Red Sox middle order with Davies returning to the lead-off batter role.
Cook sees champions Auckland and Wellington, who can both boast depth in pitching and hitting, as Canterbury's major rivals again.
Black Sox greats Nathan Nukunuku and Donny Hale bolster Auckland's batting order, and twins Heinie and Patrick Shannon are the pitcher-catcher battery.
Cook said Hutt Valley had a strong pitching lineup with Black Sox winter tourists Nik Hayes and Tane Richardson joined by drop-ball specialist David Gollan.
The Sox skipper is also wary of Southern Pride, whose 18-year-old Marlborough pitcher Kurt Schollum proved a tough nut for the Red Sox at the Jefferies Cup, and Hawke's Bay.
"There's not going to be an easy game. No-one's going to roll over for us. We made the final last year but two of our tougher games were against Southern Pride and Hawke's Bay."
Cook said national tournaments were always the toughest in the year before a world series because all the top players were involved and everyone, including Black Sox certainties, had a point to prove.
Outfielder Travis Bartorillo has withdrawn from the Red Sox through personal commitments. He has been replaced by Papanui clubmate Nathan Watt.
The Canterbury Red Sox
Pitchers: Penese Iosefo, Scott Sutherland, Aiden Cocker; Catchers: Stephen Ratu, Clayton Ellis, Nathan Watt; Infielders: Darren Davies, Steve McFarlane, Matt Holmes, Josh Harbrow, Tyron Bartorillo; Outfielders-utilities: Gareth Cook, Daniel Milne, Josh Thompson, Paul Barker; Head coach: Greg Newton; Assistant-coach: Mike Mountford; Pitching coach: Murray Britt; Manager: Jayden Moore; Scorer: Pat Hannah. ROUND-ROBIN DRAW Today: 9am: v Southern Pride. 11am: v Hutt Valley. 3pm: v Counties Manukau-Waikato. Tomorrow: 9am: v Hawke's Bay. 1pm: v Wellington. Saturday: 9am: v Auckland. 1pm: v North Harbour. Top-four playoffs: Saturday (from 5pm)/Sunday. Final: 2pm Sunday. Live scoring updates on www.softball.org.nz