Softball veterans may be dropped
The curtain could fall on the careers of some of New Zealand softball's greats when the Black Sox world championship squad is announced on Sunday.
Head coach Eddie Kohlhase's greatest headache is deciding how many veteran hitters to carry in his 17-man squad for the March 1-10 tournament in Auckland.
The veterans' brigade includes two of the biggest stars in world softball for the past 16 years - triple gold medallists Jarrad Martin, now in his early 40s, and Thomas Makea, the centrefield supremo, just a few years Martin's junior.
Auckland slugger Donny Hale, North Harbour infielder Brad Rona, catcher Patrick Shannon and infielder Nathan Nukunuku have been on Black Sox world championship teams since 2000.
The sextet - plus retired former captain Mark Sorenson - formed the nucleus of the greatest batting lineup New Zealand softball has seen - the class of 2004 that won a third consecutive world championship title in Christchurch.
All are aces of the diamond, their places in the pantheon are assured. But even superstars can't beat father time - just ask freshly retired Australian test cricket legend Ricky Ponting.
Since the 2009 tournament in Saskatoon, where the Black Sox lost the final to Australia, Kohlhase - an athletic second baseman, consistent contact hitter and speedy baserunner in the 1980s - has strived to reshape the Black Sox in his own image.
The Auckland senior Customs manager has reverted to a traditional New Zealand softball style of the era before titanium bats and lively, easily visible coloured softballs.
He has put a premium on defence, introduced more speed and a "short game" (bunting, slap hits and hit-and-runs) and moved away from a reliance on pure power batting while still mindful of the need for "some meat in the batting order to drive in the runs".
Right or wrong - the proof will be on the diamond at Albany in early March.
"I think, in hindsight, when we looked at 2009, we were a little bit tired in the legs, particularly defensively," Kohlhase said.
The transition phase signalled opportunities for younger, quicker outfielders Ben Enoka, Campbell Makea and Jerome Haretuku in the outfield and infielders Tyson Byrne and Tyron Bartorillo.
"I'm very loyal to the players but we've got to do what's right and pick a team that can play for 10 days of high-intensity softball. We have to strike a balance between offence and defence and youth and experience.
"We're not going to compromise the game we want to play for loyalty [reasons].
"There is going to be a couple of disappointed players, but there always is."
Kohlhase might also be mindful some of the older brigade have had their injury struggles. Martin snapped his Achilles tendon last year and Thomas Makea - once the prince of outfielders - has been nobbled by knee problems.
Some of the veteran stalwarts have also cherry-picked the tournaments the Black Sox have played in between 2009 and 2012.
All have got a chance to prove they still have their old mojo at the National Fastpitch Championships provincial tournament in Auckland next week but Kohlhase, assistant-coach Dave Workman and pitching coach Chubb Tangaroa were already "very close" to finalising their team.
They plan to name two standby players to help cover for injured captain Rhys Casley .
All 19 players would be involved with the Black Sox at major club tournaments in Auckland in the leadup to the March 1 to 10 world championships.
Kohlhase said Tangaroa favoured the option of a left-handed pitcher on the roster to counter teams like Argentina, laden with left-handed hitters. Gollan and 2009 Black Sox hurler Heinie Shannon are the only southpaws on the scene.
US-based Jeremy Manley is the only top pitching contender not competing in the NFC but Kohlhase said the selectors saw plenty of him on the Black Sox midwinter North American tour.
Manley's brother Regan (Hawke's Bay), Shannon (Auckland), Penese Iosefo (Canterbury), Thomas Cameron (Wellington) and Nik Hayes (Hutt Valley) are other potential prospects.