Softball is supposed to be a summer sport.
However, hardy teenagers played on during miserable rain and cold temperatures at the South Island Under-18 Boys and Girls Open Club Championships in Dunedin at the end of January.
Hundreds of adults and children cheered on eleven boys’ and six girls’ teams. At one stage, parents, siblings and other supporters in woollen hats and warm coats were wrapped in rugs and even sleeping bags as they stood or sat on camp chairs, watching the extremely competitive games.
On a Friday afternoon which was more akin to winter than summer, seagulls wrestled with the wind and the temperature was a chilly 9 or 10 deg C.
The venues, Hancock Park and Kettle Park, edging the Pacific Ocean, provide what one spectator called “fresh sea breezes” from Antarctica. I was wearing thermals and winter woollies. Next to me was an unwrapped-up kid with slender brown legs sporting goosebumps.
The sun appeared occasionally, bringing such needed warmth that a supporter dryly compared it to a hot water bottle.
Still, the dedicated youngsters didn’t seem to need much comfort as most days they played up to three games, each lasting one hour 45 minutes. The pitching was impressive, batting strong, and fielding sometimes very exciting.
I must admit to being somewhat behind the play. I’d come to support a friend’s daughter who is part of a Christchurch team.
Yells of “C’mon S-K” could be heard regularly, often as the pitcher prepared to send strong, fast balls to the batter. I presumed S-K was her name.
However, three-quarters of the game through, with silent embarrassment I realised S-K was the team name, not the pitcher’s. The cheer was for SK Diamonds, a Sydenham Kereru softball team which is part of the Kereru Sports & Cultural Club.
In between spurring on the team and ensuring their waiting helmets were right side up so as not to fill with rain, their Manager, Warren Tily, stopped for a chat.
He says the team comprises 14 girls, with the youngest 13 years-old and the eldest 17-year-old Jahneiya Taiapa, their “number one pitcher”.
Starting in December, the girls had sold raffles, bath bombs, t-shirt sponsorship and gnomes a Mum had sown, to raise about $4300 to get to the tournament.
Warren says softball is only cancelled when it is pouring with rain and unplayable. Thursday and Friday had been “wet, cold, miserable”, however the girls had played on and just two of their games were delayed five minutes each because of the rain.
Due to Covid-19 prevention measures, this year instead of the national championships, the Under-15 and Under-18 versions were held separately in both the North and South Islands.
For SK Diamonds, parents helped with fund-raising and 50 adults and children travelled to Dunedin for the four-day tournament and stayed at a camping ground. The girls had been practising since November and held two practices a week during the Christmas holidays.
Warren says while they’re good players, it’s about more than that.
It’s all about growing them as young adults…taking responsibility and working as a team.”
Four of the girls have played since age seven, when their game was Tee-Ball.
The family spirit the volunteer-run club likes to foster extends to the team Coach, Andrew Skelton. His daughter, Trinity, was the Assistant Coach, continuously buoying up her players out on the field.
Warren says one of the girls, Tamzin Mataku, had never hit a home run. Her Mum promised that if Tamzin got one, she’d give her $100. Tamzin hit her first home run, then a second.
“So her Mum now owes her two hundred dollars.”
Watching several games at the championships, I was struck by the competitive yet good-natured atmosphere.
As girls of all shapes, heights and batting stances stepped up to bat, spectators and team-mates cheered them on. When someone fielded or batted extra well, opposition supporters complimented them.
Eventually, even the sun managed a smile.
And for the record, after some hard-fought games, SK Diamonds was placed fifth out of six.
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