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Giving softball its best shot

GROW the kids . . . grow the sport is the winning formula adopted by Tairawhiti Softball Association, whose numbers have increased from eight adult teams in 2009 to 17 teams competing in the women’s (10 teams), seven in the men and 37 in the junior grades.

“You only need nine players per team but most have between 10 and 12 so that’s a massive increase in playing numbers,” said Tairawhati Softball Association president Walton Walker.

“It’s an amazing increase and it’s all down to taking the game into the primary, intermediate and high schools. As they grow and leave school, if they stay in the district, it grows the sport.”

Walker said the association are not content with the surge in numbers.

“Our big goal now is to produce a home-grown Black Sox (men) or White Sox, (women) we’ve never had someone from here play for the national teams. Short-term goals are to have more age-group representative teams and be more competitive at national age-group tournaments.

“Last year we sent two boys and one girls under-13 teams, one boys and one girls u15 teams and a boys u17 team to tournaments. The only reason we didn’t send an u18 girls team was the expense, the tournament was in Christchurch but we intend sending a team there next year.

“With the new skin diamond hopefully operational at Waikirikiri Park in February we’re hoping that it will have the same effect that the hockey turf has had for hockey, attracting national teams here and hosting age-group national tournaments. It would be great to see either the Black Sox or White Sox hold training camps here.”

The decline of softball locallyWalker said softball was big here in the late 1960s, 1970s and until the mid 1980s.

“From around 1988 to 1998 numbers dropped. I’m not sure why maybe it was down to a lack of succession, with older players not being replaced, I guess it’s a bit like that for other sports over the years.

“Other sports sprang up including touch, which was a killer for softball. Players already had the equipment so it was cheaper to play touch.”

While Walker is know as “Mr Softball”, he played down his role in the game's development locally.

“The revival started back in 2009 when Jane and Rio Edwards came back from Auckland and got involved.”

Jane Edwards took on the role of Tairawhiti Junior Softball chair woman and one of her first moves was to invite the then new Junior Black Sox development coach John Love to hold a coaching session for high school players.

“The following year the number of teams doubled and it hasn’t stopped growing. Without a doubt the key has been the involvement of young players, school teachers senior players and volunteers,” said Walker.

“We’ve got 18 high school students who umpire the games and they are mentored by senior umpires. We’ve adapted some of the rules from the senior game to suit the younger players, including everyone getting a turn to bat.

“And with games only lasting an hour it frees the players and their parents up to do other things at the weekend. A lot of the people involved are former players or parents of kids who play but we’re also keen to attract those who have never been involved with softball to get involved.”

Softball development officerWalker, who has been president since 2006 said the associaiton had appointed Leesa Kingi as softball development officer.

“Leesa, who has been involved in softball as long as I have, will do a great job, not just developing it here but on the Coast. Ideally we’d love to have a school-age competition on the Coast but if there is not the numbers then their teams could compete in town.”

Walker said the association was also a supporter of the Ease Up programme — no alcohol, no smoking — in their efforts to promote the sport.

“The way we see it is, the parents and friends come along to support the kids so asking people to not drink or smoke for an hour is not a lot to ask.

“Last year there was the odd exception but I can tell you from someone who empties the trash cans each week there were not many beer cans or bottles. It creates a great environment for the kids to enjoy their games.”

Walker said upskilling coaches and umpires was a priority for the association.

“That’s why we’re bringing former White Sox player and coach Naomi Shaw is coming here next week for a two day-workshop/coaching session.

“Naomi will be working with rep coaches then later on we’ll have Softball New Zealand chief umpire Wiremu Tamaki here working with our umpires.”



SWINGING IN THE SUN: Mangapapa's Aamiorangi Hongara-Atkins in action at Barry Park. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
THROWING BAT AT BALL: Calais Savage from Uawa. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
PITCHER PERFECT: Te Ratahi Campbell From Ilminster fires in a pitch during the opening weekend of the Tairawhiti softball season. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
Umpire Xayvier Kingi From GBHS And Catcher Jonleigh Campbell-Ratapu From Ilminster. Picture by Rebecca Grunwell