The Press

White Sox great Hira back in top action at 55

- Tony Smith

Rhonda Hira – New Zealand’s greatest women’s softballer – is dusting off her glove and returning to the diamond to pit her silken skills against players half her age.

Hira, a fit and active 55-year-old and the most capped player in New Zealand White Sox history, will lace up her cleats and play in this weekend’s Fastball 45 tournament in Christchur­ch as a pick-up player for the Kaiapoi Queens.

New Zealand softball’s player of the decade (1997-2006) still trains at the gym six days a week and ‘‘won’t be rusty’’ because she’s been playing social softball for the tautahi club.

Part of the world softball Hall of Famer’s motivation is the chance to play alongside god-daughters Nerissa and Layla BaileyMcDo­well, and their younger sister McKenzie. The trio are the daughters of Hira’s former White Sox team-mate Jaye Bailey, and Kaiapoi Queens coach Mike McDowell.

‘‘Every year, the nieces have been asking, ‘ come back and play, Aunty’,’’ Hira said. Mike asked me in the pre-season, and I said, ‘ yeah I’ll give it a go’.

‘‘I quite like the [Fastball] format, it looks very exciting, so that was another trigger for me.’’

Hira, who is studying to become a personal trainer, said she was ‘‘actually quite motivated’’ to help the younger Kaiapoi players and, after training with her team-mates, is confident she won’t let them, or herself, down.’’

Since retiring from elite softball in the mid-2000s, she has kept busy playing golf. A former Canterbury Masters representa­tive and interclub player, she won the best nett trophy and longest drive prize at the recent Canterbury women’s champion of champions tournament.

Hira said she was attracted to the Fastball format because it was ‘‘only four innings, or 45 minutes, and there’s plenty of squeeze plays’’, with action from the first inning.

She was keen to play alongside the Bailey-McDowell sisters, having had ‘‘a long connection’’ with the family, ‘‘since [their mum] Jaye came down from Taranaki as a teenager to play for my team in the Hutt Valley’’.

Jaye Bailey and Hira played together on the New Zealand team at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.

Hira, from the Waikato/Tainui iwi, grew up in central Hawke’s Bay as a multitalen­ted sportswoma­n. She switched to softball after reading that the New Zealand women’s team had won a bronze medal at the 1978 world championsh­ips in El Salvador.

Hira represente­d Hawke’s Bay before winning national titles with Hutt Valley and Canterbury. She made her New Zealand debut in 1983.

In her near-20 year, 107-cap career, she represente­d the White Sox at five world championsh­ips, winning a bronze medal at her first tournament in 1986, and silver in

1990. She was New Zealand’s top batter at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, and was rated by legendary coach Ed Dolejs as the White Sox’s greatest all-time player.

Hira isn’t the only White Sox veteran on a Fastball 45 team roster.

Current White Sox assistantc­oach Melisa Tupuivao (nee Upu), another Sydney Olympian, will mark her 46th birthday as playercoac­h of the Hutt Valley Kotuku Raiders at the central qualifying tournament on December 4-6.

The Fastball 45 southern zone men’s and women’s series starts at Christchur­ch’s Mizuno Ballpark tomorrow night with the finals on Sunday.

The Christchur­ch zone winners will qualify for the national finals in Auckland on December 11-13.

The Central Auckland Bolts men – led by Black Sox captain Cole Evans – and the West Waves women – spearheade­d by Auckland-based American pitcher Gretchen Aucoin – qualified from the northern zone tournament last weekend.

The central zone winners will also contest the national finals.

 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Christchur­ch United’s Rhonda Hira strides out for first base at a national women’s interclub final in Wellington.
GETTY IMAGES Christchur­ch United’s Rhonda Hira strides out for first base at a national women’s interclub final in Wellington.

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