Horowai Puketapu was the hero as the Maraenui Pumas premier men's softball team claimed their first international scalp last night.
Despite not having pitched for three seasons, Puketapu pitched all six innings of Pumas 5-1 victory against the Denmark under-18 team at Akina Park, Hastings. This was the first of three games Denmark will play in the Bay as part of their buildup to the inaugural Under-18 Men's World Cup which will begin in Palmerston North on Saturday.
"With Kahurangi [Junior Black Sox pitcher Beamsley-Allan] in camp with the New Zealand team I had an inkling I might be given the pitching job. Although I've been playing for Poneke-Kilbirnie down in Wellington for the last five years I still try and play as often as I can for Pumas and will do whatever the team needs me to do," Puketapu said afterwards.
The 25-year-old aquatics manager at the Ocean Spa pools in Napier struck out 12 of the 23 batters he faced while conceding one hit and three walks. Ngati Kahungunu's 2011 Junior Sportsman of the Year, Puketapu also hit an automatic home run over the centre outfield fence to give Pumas a 3-1 lead in the fourth inning.
His smile in the post-match huddle after the game was as big as the one he sported when he won his battle with cancer in 2016. The previous year he was diagnosed with hodgkin lymphoma after his left lung collapsed and eight chemotherapy sessions and a month-long stint of radiation treatment assisted him with the victory in that seven-month battle.
Puketapu's Pumas coach Damian Allan also had a massive smile after his troops completed a rendition of the club's Better By Far song.
"I'm stoked. It's a good feeling to have an international scalp. So many of these boys have played for the club since they were five ... the likes of Horowai, Curtis [Huata] and the Aranui brothers [Karaitiana and Manaaki]. Kevin [Wildermoth] a founding player for the club 30 years ago was in the crowd and his son Vinnie smashed a home run ... that was pretty special," Allan explained.
He agreed the victory will give his troops confidence as they chase the post-Christmas title in Hawke's Bay's premier men's competition.
Denmark opened the scoring in the first inning when lead off batter and short stop Magnus Kirstein, who got on base with a walk, scampered home on a pass ball. Pumas equalised in the bottom of the third when second baseman Wildermoth produced his automatic home run which was replicated by Puketapu.
Third baseman Josh Gettins gave Pumas the lead when he scored on a pass ball in the fourth inning. Puketapu's automatic followed and catcher Karaitiana Aranui had a chance of an in-park home run but had to settle for a three bagger after being halted by coach Allan.
Outfielders Jason Kelleher and Hamish Long scored Pumas' other runs when they sprinted home on an error in the fifth inning.
Denmark pitcher William Melin struck out eight of the 22 batters he faced while conceding five hits and two walks.
Denmark coach Kevin Stockford, who was Horowhenua-raised and played for the Hawke's Bay-based Central Vikings early in his playing career, was pleased with the improvement his lads displayed after being given a lesson by the Australia under-18 team earlier in the day.
"Australia was a learning experience and we folded. There was huge improvement tonight.
"Just getting to the World Cup was an achievement for us," Stockford said, referring to the fact Denmark beat Great Britain and Israel to qualify for the 12-team World Cup.
"Obviously we're not expecting to make the top three in our section in Palmy but there are games we are targeting and playing these three matches in Hawke's Bay will help make us better ball players and prepare us for those games," Stockford explained.
Denmark will play Guatemala in the first match at the World Cup on Saturday. Guatemala and Mexico will be Denmark's targets as the other teams in their pool are New Zealand, Japan and the United States.
Stockford, 35, has received plenty of international experience as a player and coach since leaving New Zealand in 2008. He has attended three World Series in either a playing or coaching role with Great Britain and has played in Canada and Australia.
Denmark will play two games at Akina Park tonight. The first will be against Saints from 6.30pm and the second against Fast Pitch from 8.15pm.