Monday, January 24, 2011

Kiwis battle on the Diamond

New Zealand’s U16 baseball national team is ready for the upcoming AA Oceania Championship, trying to qualify for the World Championship in Mexico later this year.

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by CHRIS HARROWELL, Howick and Pakuranga Times

A squad comprising the hottest young baseball talent in the country is aiming to overcome stiff competition and advance to one of the sport’s grandest stages.

New Zealand’s under-16 baseball team has been training for three weeks for the AA Oceania Championships starting tomorrow.

The international tournament sees them taking on national squads from Australia and Guam in a round-robin series at Lloyd Elsmore Park, Pakuranga, until Friday.

The winner advances to the under-16 International Baseball Federation (IBAF) world championships in Mexico later this year.

At the helm of the New Zealand team is head coach Aaron Campbell, assisted by brother Scott, Cola Yeh and Matt Mills.

Campbell says his squad of young players is progressing “pretty well” and overall he’s happy with what they’ve achieved at training.

“For a lot of the guys this is probably the first baseball programme they’ve been involved in,” he says.

“It’s a lot of information to take on-board and a lot of hard work, but they’re improving every day.”

He points to the squad’s athleticism as among its key strengths, while a lack of experience is one of the challenges to overcome.

“We run the bases and swing the bat pretty well,” says Campbell. “Our pitching is also a big strength, which is uncharacteristic for New Zealand baseball and the region in general.”

The team has been working on increasing its understanding of team defence and strategy – two things needed to succeed at the elite level.

“We’ve had to work on that,” says Campbell, who in July furthered his knowledge of the game by working with Major League Baseball’s Chicago Cubs at the club’s spring training camp.

“There’s a lack of experience on this team and some of the guys are quite young. We’ve broken a lot of bad habits in the past few weeks.”

Scott Campbell is a second baseman in the Toronto Blue Jays organisation, while Yeh is a former Taiwanese professional player and Los Angeles Dodgers minor leaguer.

Canadian-born Mills is one of the most experienced and respected coaches in New Zealand.

David Ballinger, the president of Baseball NZ, is excited about the calibre of coaches.

“The combined baseball experience, at the highest levels globally, is unrivalled by past teams we’ve put together,” he says.

“We’ve got a current professional player, a former professional player, a great pitching coach, and are led by a guy who recently trained with the Chicago Cubs, who we believe is one of the best coaches in the region. Our under-16 team is in good hands.”

Aaron Campbell, a former Howick-Pakuranga DiamondBlacks stand-out, doesn’t yet know much about the opponents, but has an idea what to expect when his players take the field for the first game.

“Australia has just finished second in the world in the under-18s and they’re good at baseball in this [under-16s] year group,” he says.

“They will be well-coached, will understand the game and they’ll be athletic and polished. Guam will be full of big strong boys who run fast and throw hard.”

Despite his squad’s shortage of experience, the 28-year-old has clear goals about what it wants to achieve.

He says it’s a great chance for locals to get along to watch the fast-paced sport live and to support their country.

“Our goal is to try to win the tournament,” he says. “If we pitch well and can score some runs, I think we can beat Australia and Guam.

“We want to show the international baseball community we have a great programme down here.

“The rivalry of New Zealand versus Australia is always something people enjoy. It’s a good opportunity to see an intense sport with 14 and 15-year-olds going after it.”

Each team plays two games on Tuesday and either once or twice per day for the rest of the week. 

The first day of the tournament tomorrow features New Zealand taking on Guam at 10am, followed by the opening ceremony at 1pm.

The Kiwis have to rise to the challenge in the afternoon and face Australia only 45 minutes after the end of their first match.

Guam plays Australia 45 minutes after the end of the latter’s game against New Zealand.

People who are not able to get to the games can watch the first day of play on Sky Sport – a first for baseball in New Zealand.

The tournament is played at the Howick-Pakuranga club’s home diamond at Lloyd Elsmore Park.

The games aren’t the only entertainment. Special guest and New York Yankees centrefielder Curtis Granderson will be there with Major League Baseball’s roadshow, which will feature a batting cage and pitching tunnel.

This story was published by the Howick and Pakuranga Times in New Zealand