Standing up to those who told her there was no place for a girl on the baseball diamond, Sharysse Kjestrup-Caudwell continues to make waves in the sport, as the first Kiwi invited to a girls’ global tournament.
It takes a lot to keep Sharysse Kjestrup-Caudwell down.
Once told ‘girls don’t play baseball’, and forced to switch to softball, Kjestrup-Caudwell is now one of only two women playing baseball in New Zealand’s men’s premier grade. And the talented catcher is being noticed on an international scale too.
Even when she tore her ACL in a softball tournament, she continued playing – pushing through the pain to earn selection for an international softball competition.
Kjestrup-Caudwell is also the first Kiwi to be invited to play at the Baseball for All Nationals – the largest baseball tournament for girls in the United States, bringing together up-and-coming players from around the world.
And she’s working with the sport to create pathways for girls – after years of seeing girls being turned away.
Normally the only woman on any baseball team she plays for, 19-year-old Kjestrup-Caudwell is a role model for all younger Kiwi girls in the sport.
“When I’m playing my games in the older grades, they’ll sit there and go ‘Oh my gosh Mum, look it’s a girl, look!’” Kjestrup-Caudwell says.
“It’s just adorable, I love it. I just hope even one girl plays after seeing there are opportunities out there.”
Kjestrup-Caudwell was that girl once.
At the age of five, she first picked up a baseball for the Te Puru Coasters, in east Auckland, and rose through the ranks in Counties, from T-ball to premier grade, competing alongside boys.
She grew used to boys who teased her, calling her an ‘easy hit’ if she was pitching, or telling their team to move closer when she was batting. But the men she plays against now are a lot more welcoming, as they respect her skills.
But when she first made the U13 team, the coach told her she had to move to softball, with the reasoning: “Girls don’t play baseball”.
Kjestrup-Caudwell says girls start dropping out of the sport in their teens – some go to softball, some to other sports. And some stop playing sport all together. “I think every girl’s journey is different, but it’s all the same message – you’re not entirely welcome here,” she says.
Not long after she switched, the coach admitted defeat, calling Kjestrup-Caudwell back to his baseball team when he realised they needed her skills.
“He was real old school,” she remembers. “In recent years, he’s seen me, but he still doesn’t know my name – he still calls me Sheree. He pretty much takes credit for all of my success.”
Yet his old-fashioned school of thought didn’t help her progress at all.
While Kjestrup-Caudwell still plays softball, her true love is baseball, preferring the sport in many ways. Softball diamonds are smaller and the sizes of the ball and bats differ between the two sports. But the mental skills are what truly draws Kjestrup-Caudwell to baseball.
“Personally I think baseball requires a lot more thinking,” she says. “Because of the runner being able to lead off the base and the bigger distances to run, it requires so much more thinking – just knowing what your next play is.
“Especially with the added element in baseball, you start off the base, so pretty much the ball’s live at any point in time. So you’ve constantly got to be paying attention. Whereas in softball, you kind of stay on the bag [base] until the pitcher’s pitched the ball and then you can do stuff. It’s a lot more thinking involved and I love that.”
It’s also become a family affair.
Kjestrup-Caudwell’s dad, Scott Caudwell, played softball when he was younger, even playing in Canada for a few years, but has moved into baseball coaching. Her mum, Natasha Kjestrup, holds the highest accreditation for scoring baseball in New Zealand.
Sharysse is keen to follow in their footsteps once her playing career is finished. She’s already done umpire courses, while she was injured in 2020, and she has a real passion for helping others.
Her injury came while she was playing softball – at the U18 nationals two years ago – when she heard a pop in her knee as it buckled.
“I was on the floor and I told my dad to come over. He was walking so slowly, I got annoyed with him and just said ‘Screw it’ and got up and walked off,” she laughs.
Thinking it was a minor injury, she played through the pain and was selected to attend an international softball competition in California.
“I was quite surprised, cause it definitely wasn’t my best performance considering I was injured,” she says. “But I got selected for that team, and ended up having to turn it down a month later because I wasn’t getting better.”
A month after the tournament, Kjestrup-Caudwell saw a specialist and an MRI revealed she’d torn her ACL, along with both menisci in her right knee. It was a major shock, as she’d been walking round for weeks with minimal pain.
But the specialist told her she did “a bloody good job of it” and he didn’t know how she was still walking around.
Surgery and rehab ruled Kjestrup-Caudwell out of sport for around a year. But she still showed up, helping in practices and trainings, despite the emotional toll of not being able to play.
“Oh, it was excruciatingly painful,” she says. “I really wanted to be out there, but I just kept trying to help out in any way I could.”
But the break also had its rewards, Kjestrup-Caudwell admits.
“It also helped me because I was learning how to read pitchers’ pick-off moves – when you’re a runner and you’re leading to the base, the pitcher can turn around and throw it at you and try and get you out. That’s made me a better player now cause I know how to read that a lot better.”
Kjestrup Caudwell’s selflessness extends to her life outside baseball. She’s in her second year studying physiotherapy at the Auckland University of Technology, where she’s also a peer mentor and a student ambassador helping younger students with their study.
She hopes to use her degree to become a specialised physio for baseball and softball athletes, as she knows the importance of specialised knowledge when it comes to rehabbing sporting injuries and returning athletes safely to full fitness.
As the first Kiwi chosen to play in the Baseball for All Nationals, Kjestrup-Caudwell was due to fly to Arizona next month, an incredible experience to play alongside and against the world’s best.
However, a last-minute scheduling clash with the USA baseball tryouts, cancelled the college division – but fortunately, Kjestrup-Caudwell can carry her invitation over to next year. She’s already started a Give-a-little page to fundraise for the trip.
While the news was incredibly disappointing, Kjestrup-Caudwell is always one to look on the bright side – she now has a full summer of baseball before the 2023 tournament. Last summer, she only played half a season on her way back from knee surgery.
Kjestrup-Caudwell was buoyed when a new female CEO started at Baseball New Zealand last year. Megan Crockett has worked in various other sports before starting this role.
The young baseballer immediately made contact with her, to ensure women’s baseball was well represented and supported in the future.
“It’s definitely nice having her be proactive about it,” says Kjestrup-Caudwell, who’s now working with Crockett to make sure women’s voices are heard.
“She’s gone around and talked to the scorers, umpires, coaches, players and parents, just to try and get feedback on how baseball’s running in New Zealand now to try to improve it.”
Sharysse Kjestrup-Caudwell wants to see NZ have a women’s team in the Baseball World Cup.
Kjestrup-Caudwell hopes to continue to inspire girls to play baseball in New Zealand, and push the narrative that softball isn’t the only option for women.
“There’s finally starting to become pathways for the boys, but for girls, we’re still told ‘You’ve got no path, just go over to softball’,” she says.
“It’s really upsetting hearing that because personally, I’ve experienced not such a great time at softball as well.
“I want to play baseball, so that’s why I’ve been searching out for opportunities for the past couple of years to start trying to create pathways for girls.”
Kjestrup-Caudwell is also looking to play in Australia, with talk of a baseball league for women developing across the Tasman.
Her long-term goal is to enter a New Zealand women’s team into the Baseball World Cup, and Kjestrup-Caudwell is already helping train young girls as catchers to encourage them to continue with the sport.
But she knows there’s a lot of work to be done: “It’s a long process; it’s definitely not something that can happen overnight.”
Her advice for girls in baseball?
“Definitely just stick with it. You never know what opportunities are going to come up for you,” she says.
While her trip to prove herself on the global scale will have to wait, Kjestrup-Caudwell isn’t slowing down.
“I want to grow back here. Even if I’m not the best girl we’ve ever seen in baseball in New Zealand, I still want to be able to facilitate younger girls to be able to do it because they should have the right to play.”