New Zealand men’s softball had a number of defensive stars in its early decades, including gifted fielders like Auckland shortstop Paul Rogers. But Kiwi batters lagged behind their North American rivals until Mark Sorenson, Jimmy Cotter, Michael Nichols, Ian Stringer, Eddie Kohlhase and Jimmy Hall burst onto the scene in the early 1980s.
Sorenson and later stars Jarrad Martin, Thomas Makea, Brad Rona, Donny Hale and Nathan Nukunuku dominate the all-time batting statistics. Travis Wilson, a part of the gold-medal-winning 1996 team at just 19, signed for baseball major league club the Atlanta Braves in 1997. Wilson spent eight years at the top of baseball’s minor league system, before returning to play at the 2009 world softball championships.
Power-batting Aucklander Martha Rush was one of New Zealand’s early female softball stars. Ed Dolejs rated infielders Rhonda Hira and Marilyn Marshall (previously Chapman) as the greatest women softballers of his coaching era. Both were world-class hitters who excelled in a number of positions.
Herlihy versus Stofflett
The 1976 International Softball Federation men’s world championships in Lower Hutt produced one of the greatest individual duels in New Zealand team sporting history. New Zealand’s Kevin Herlihy, the best right-handed pitcher in the world, and the American Ty Stofflet, the greatest left-hander, threw 20 innings each (almost three regular games) before the US won 1–0.
New Zealand softball is famed for its prodigious pitching talent.
The New Zealand women had a golden generation of pitchers in Cheryl Kemp, Debbie Mygind and Gina Weber from the early 1970s to 2000, when Weber competed at the Sydney Olympics. All three were on the 1982 world-championship-winning team in Taiwan where their coach Ed Dolejs ranked Mygind and Kemp as being among the top three pitchers in the world.
Ross Smith and Brian Wareham were among the top-ranking male pitching pioneers. But the first real star was Hutt Valley hurler Bill Massey. In the 1960s he helped his Railways club to six national inter-club titles in eight seasons, as well as six consecutive inter-provincial crowns.
Kevin Herlihy, a tall Wellingtonian, dominated the New Zealand scene and was an outstanding international softballer. He played from the late 1960s, and in 1984 captained the first New Zealand men’s team to win a world championship outright.
Michael White produced the greatest pitching feat in New Zealand softball history in 1996, with a ‘perfect’ game in the world championship 4–0 victory over Canada. Combining with catcher Mark Sorenson, White did not concede a single safe hit or walk, or allow a runner to make base.
Steve Jackson was on the mound for New Zealand’s 1984 world championship victory. Marty Grant pitched a no-hitter in the 2000 triumph. Chubb Tangaroa (New Zealand pitching coach in 2012), Peter Meredith and Paul Magan were worthy successors to the early standard bearers.
Softball in the blood
Dave Sorenson and his son Mark Sorenson both captained New Zealand to world championship gold medals. Dave was captain when New Zealand were co-winners at the 1976 Lower Hutt world championships. At the age of 16 his son Mark won the first of his four world championship gold medals, as a team member in 1984 at Midland, Michigan. Mark later captained the Black Sox to victory at Midland in 1996 and East London, South Africa in 2000. He was also a member of the world-championship-winning team at Christchurch in 2004, and coached the Black Sox team which won the world title in Canada in 2017..
Challenges facing softball
Few sports rely on any one individual as much as softball does on its pitcher. The New Zealand pitching production line once churned out champions every year, but by 2012 they were fewer and farther between. Pitcher development had become the New Zealand game’s greatest challenge as it sought to revive its glory years.
New Zealand softball has batted above its small-nation status on the world stage. Thirty-three New Zealand players, coaches, managers, administrators, umpires and scorers have been inducted into the International Softball Federation Hall of Fame since 1981. New Zealanders now play professionally in North America, Japan and Europe. However, in 2012 softball was starved of sponsorship and media profile.
The Black Sox victory in the 2013 men’s world championship at Albany, in North Auckland, brought media attention and the possibility of attracting new players and sponsors.