Black Sox seek 'X factor' at trials before World Cup at home

Just who will be in that squad looking to reclaim softball's top prize remains to be seen, but the journey begins Friday in Wellington.

Black Sox coach Mark Sorenson earlier this week named 90 athletes looking to push their case for selection in 2022, broken down into 30 players each from the south, central and northern regions of the country.

The three groups, filled with current and former New Zealand representatives, will play four games each under Sorenson's eye over the next three weekends - starting with the central group in Wellington on Friday, before heading to Auckland next week and then finally Christchurch.

Sorenson told 1News he and his coaching staff opted to "cast a wide net" for this year's selection after Covid-19 had plagued players' ability to get game time both domestically and internationally in the last three years.

"Typically, we'd end our season around March and we'd sort of go into hibernation for the winter months, but we can't afford to do that with the amount of games that we've lost with Auckland being in lockdown for so long," Sorenson said.

"Having trials regionally and seeing who wants to put their hand up and try and make the team was something that was new and hadn't been done before, so we thought why not?"

Sorenson said along with the four games there will also be some fitness work and "benchmark testing" at the trials.

Finding the 'X factor'

With nearly 100 players to analyse over the next three weeks, Sorenson said he was looking for players to stand out with their play and show him things that aren't ordinary in the game of softball.

"Whenever we're selecting a team, one of the things I'm looking for is that 'X factor' - someone who has the ability to turn a game with something that is an instinctive skill. There's the learned skills like fielding, throwing, hitting and baserunning - but those athletes that have that built-in X factor to turn a game is key."

He added players who could play multiple positions both in the field and hitting line-up would also have an edge.

"Our Kiwi style of ball is an unselfish style of ball where we get on and we pass the bat to next guy, and then they get on and pass it to the next guy, and then he comes up with the big hit to get a run here or there - and suddenly the pressure is on."

Amongst those named are a few athletes who have found success in New Zealand's other diamond sport - baseball - with Tuatara players such as Beau Te Wera Bishop set to trial as well.

However, Sorenson said there would be no cross-code issues to worry about, especially in the case of Bishop, who played for the Black Sox in his teenage years before endeavoring in a career in baseball.

"We'd like to think that Beau was a softball boy to start with anyway," Sorenson said with a grin.

"He grew up at the park out in Porirua. Sure, he's been away playing baseball but he's back here playing premier softball in Wellington for Porirua this year, and has played all year and is part of the Wellington national provincial championship side.

"He's a quality ball player and has had a great stint with the Tuatara, but I guess this is a chance for him to come back to where it all started for him."

The road ahead

After the trials, Sorenson will cast a watchful eye over the final two domestic tournaments of the season - the National Fastpitch Championship in Christchurch next month, and the Men's Open Club Nationals in Auckland in March.

The plan was to then take a touring squad to Australia to get some much-needed international play before the World Cup, but Sorenson revealed to 1News the series has since been cancelled by Softball Australia due to Covid issues there. Softball NZ confirmed the cancellation soon after.

Instead, Sorenson has moved to 'plan B', which will see a domestic training camp of 30 selected players coming together in Auckland for more scrimmage games and training in April after the club nationals tournament.

After that, some players will head overseas to play in the competitive US scene during the winter while those still in New Zealand will continue training during the off-season.

Sorenson will then make his final call with one last trial in October once all the players are back, before the final squad is named for the November tournament.

The Black Sox enter the tournament having finished a disappointing fourth in 2019 in Prague - the first time the side had failed to reach the final in 39 years.

"Me in the coaching role, I'm fortunate enough to have another chance to go back and right the wrong," Sorenson, a four-time world champion as a player, said.

"But we've just got to take care of the little things... and if we can control those little things, we'll be well prepared by the time it gets to opening night to have a good run at it."