For someone immersed in softball her entire life, Nerissa McDowell had to make a weighty decision two years ago.
Stay in New Zealand – with lockdowns, restrictions and little softball competition – or go overseas to continue playing her sport, knowing Kiwi borders would be closed and she’d have an indefinite return date. And she’d be separated from her softball-mad family in Christchurch.
McDowell chose softball, and she has no regrets. She’s played in Australia and the United States ever since, developing her game and playing with and against Olympians.
Now the 25-year-old outfielder – Rissa to her teammates – can’t wait for the reunion with her fellow White Sox as they compete in the group stage of the Women’s Softball World Cup in Italy later this month.
The White Sox haven’t played at an international competition since before the Covid pandemic began – which has seen their world ranking plummet from fifth in 2018, to 29th.
“It’s been tough, especially when New Zealand closed the borders. It was really, really strict for a long time when the rest of the world started to open up a little bit,” McDowell explains.
“We’re also a little bit unlucky just because there’s not a lot of countries near us that play a lot of softball.”
New Zealand automatically qualified for the World Cup group stage, filling one of two Oceania spots, with Australia. While the opportunity to play in the tournament without battling to qualify is a gift, McDowell says the lack of game time is also a slight hindrance.
“Because we haven’t had the opportunity to play, it will be really interesting to see where we’re at in the next couple of weeks compared with the rest of the world,” she says.
The White Sox play hosts Italy, Olympic gold medalists Japan, Canada, Venezuela and the Philippines in the tournament, which starts on July 22.
Despite their lack of game time against quality international opponents lately, the Kiwis aren’t just there to make up numbers.
“We’re always competitive, we’re definitely not going there just for fun,” says McDowell.
“These girls have really been working their butts off so they’re coming and they’re ready to give these big-name teams a run for their money.”
Although she’s been away from the rest of the team, who are back home in New Zealand training, McDowell has no doubt she’ll fit right back in when they reunite in Italy.
“We’ve been working really, really hard, even before I left, as a squad back in New Zealand,” she says.
“When we’re in our big squad, everyone is just amazing, we’ve all been working together for one goal. And it’s just like a big family, which is really exciting to be able to see them in a couple of weeks as well.”
Nerissa (left) and younger sister McKenzie, who played for the Junior White Sox in June.
The family connection to softball runs deep for McDowell. Her mum, Jaye Bailey, represented New Zealand at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, and dad Mike McDowell has played and coached as well, and was a long-time coach of the Canterbury Red Sox.
But softball didn’t start until later for Nerissa and her sisters, with their parents busy playing on Saturdays.
“They didn’t have time to take me and my sisters to our own games so we would just run around the ballpark next to them,” McDowell explains. Nerissa is the eldest of four girls; two of her younger sisters also play and are in national age-group teams.
At the age of 12, McDowell evolved from throwing a ball in the backyard with her family to playing for the Kaiapoi Softball Club in Canterbury.
After graduating from the University of Canterbury with a Bachelor of Commerce, in marketing and human resource management, McDowell moved to Sydney. Her partner, Brad Kilpatrick, (also a softball player) was living over there, so she joined him in March 2021, with the guarantee of playing high-level softball.
Some teams in New Zealand struggle to make up numbers, so playing time often isn’t fiercely contested. “Whereas in Australia or even the US, they have almost hundreds of players…you really need to work hard to earn your place in a team,” McDowell explains.
But she can see the environment changing in New Zealand, and more people pursuing and sticking with softball.
“Especially with what the White Sox are doing, trying to be those people who kids can look up to,” she says. “Kids can see them playing at a higher level and want to be like that, so they’ll want to put in the work.”
McDowell played for various teams in Sydney, alongside Olympians, furthering her skills and experience.
“The softball scene over there is a lot higher quality,” she says. “I wanted to get better as a softballer, and going to New South Wales and Sydney specifically, where they’re one of the best teams, they have the best players in the nation. That definitely encouraged me to go over there as well, knowing I wasn’t taking a step back.”
McDowell is now in Florida with her Kilpatrick, who works with the University of Florida Gators softball team, so McDowell is able to use their facilities, training with their hitting machines and indoor facilities.
“These girls who are 18 to 23 have state-of-the-art facilities, almost like professional facilities,” she says, using the multimillion-dollar Gators softball complex. “You would just never see that in New Zealand, not even for our pro teams.”
McDowell has been training with some of the college softball girls, but also playing alongside her partner.
“During the week sometimes I’ll jump in with my partner’s men’s team and just play in the outfield and take some swings off some of the men’s players as well – which is a higher quality than most women’s teams anyway, so it’s been really good,” she says.
McDowell sees the harder and faster men’s game as good preparation for the upcoming international competition.
Her White Sox teammates are already messaging her, asking for softball gear to be brought to them from the US, where there’s an abundance of options. The accessibility is one of McDowell’s favourite things about the country.
She misses her family, although she did get to see younger sister McKenzie play for the Junior White Sox in Kansas last month. It was an experience she describes as “good for my soul”.
Despite travelling for softball, this will be McDowell’s first time playing in Europe, but her goals haven’t changed.
“I just want to perform well for myself and for my team,” she says. “I think it’s important to not change those goals just because it’s a higher-classed tournament than usual. I like to keep things kind of simple, otherwise you start to over think things and get in your head.
“So I find that works best for me, just keeping my goals the same.”