New Zealand downplaying top seeding

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald New Zealand centre fielder Andre Hart powers his way around the bases Wednesday during an exhibition game against South Africa.

They may be entering this week with the number one overall ranking in the 13-team field at the 2018 Junior Men’s Softball World Championship.

However, the reigning silver medalists from New Zealand aren’t paying much attention to where they are seeded ahead of their opening game in Group B Saturday at 12:30 p.m. against Hong Kong at Rotary Field.

“In our eyes, we still have a lot of work to do, so we’ll see how things shake out for us,” coach Thomas Makea said. “I think a lot of that ranking has to do with our men’s team being the reigning world champions, but that gives our guys something they can strive towards as they go forward in the sport.

“If you look at this field, you have Canada, Australia, the United States, Argentina and Japan that have legitimate shots of winning. In order to be the champions you need to be playing your best on any given day.”

New Zealand lived up to their top ranking in a tune-up game Wednesday afternoon at Optimist Field as held South Africa without a hit in a convincing 13-0 win.

“Our biggest thing at the moment is getting ourselves ready to go for the round-robin games, which is something we focused on during a 10-day stay in Toronto before we came to Prince Albert this week,” centre fielder Andre Hart said.

“Many of us are going to be making our international debut at this tournament and it’s going to be an exciting moment for us.”

Three players from the 2016 team that lost 2-1 to Japan in the final in Midland, Mich. are with this year’s squad in Prince Albert as they look to finish one spot higher on the podium.

“Reilly Makea, Kaleb Rona and Harrison Valk were all there two years ago and we’re looking to those guys to lead the way for our younger boys,” coach Thomas Makea said.

“The biggest thing they’ve been telling us is to make sure that we are playing our game,” Hart added. “They’ve really been stressing on the fact that we need to be ourselves and do the things that got us to this point.”

New Zealand’s marquee round-robin matchups will be Sunday at 5:30 p.m. against the United States and Monday at 8 p.m. against Canada.

Both of those games will be held at Rotary Field.

“It’s a short tournament so we’re really going to be focusing on our mental health and our physical fitness,” Hart said. “Being able to recover from games is going to be huge in order to have a good showing.”

After winning two straight titles in 1985 and 1989, New Zealand have finished as the tournament runner-up on four occasions.

In addition to their loss to Japan two years ago, they also lost 9-0 to Argentina at the 2014 tournament in Whitehorse, Yukon.