Ale Morganti is about to represent New Zealand at a senior level in a sport she first heard of less than 2 1/2 years ago.
The Wellington Girls' College year 13 student will make her debut for the New Zealand women's handball team in Wellington this weekend.
Morganti, a goalkeeper, is one of four Wellington school pupils in the 16-member New Zealand squad, which will take on Australia in a two-test series at the ASB Centre on Friday and Saturday.
The winner of the trans- Tasman clash will represent the Oceania region in the women's world championships in Serbia in December.
Sixteen-year-old Morganti is the youngest in the New Zealand team and will be joined by schoolmate Bella Anastasiou and the Marsden College pair of Vishmi Heleratne and Cassie O'Regan, with the latter also a goalkeeper. All four are in their final year at school.
Morganti was born in Wellington but her family moved to England when she was a baby, before returning in early 2011.
"About two weeks after I started school here, a girl in my form class put my name down for handball and persuaded me to come along and see what it was like.
"I had never heard of it before, though it's always been quite big in Europe apparently.
"They put me in the field originally and I was terrible but then they stuck me in goal. I started to improve and really liked it," Morganti said.
"The handball community is quite small and they are very welcoming and happy to have new players."
"I used to play in goal at football when I was at primary school [in London] and that's probably where my reflexes come from. The boys were never too keen on the girls playing [football] so they would stick us in goal.
"But I played in goal at a football trial recently and they are really different roles.
"The ball and goals are much smaller in handball and you can obviously control the ball much better with your hands than your feet. They can get the ball to spin around you.
"It's much easier to beat the goalkeeper [in handball] than save the goal.
"But they can't get as close to you in handball [as they can in football]. There is a six-metre perimeter around goal where only the goalkeeper can be. They [the opposition] can jump into it but must release the ball before they land.
"But I do feel I'm under more pressure [in goal] than some of the players. When I screw up, it shows up on the scoreboard."
Morganti played only for her school team in her first season of handball but also played club handball last year and earned selection for the New Zealand under-20 team which competed in the IHF Challenge Cup in Samoa.
Australia, Samoa, the Cook Islands and Vanuatu also took part in the Challenge Cup, and Morganti was named the outstanding goalkeeper at the tournament.
There are three goalkeepers in the national squad, with Morganti and O'Regan competing with the experienced Hannah Chestnut for game time.
O'Regan, 17, is in only her second year as a goalkeeper and has played virtually all her handball at a school level but has impressed national coach Ben Birkenhake with her potential.
"Cassie is very talented, with very fast reactions, but hasn't played much club handball and will benefit from the experience of playing at this level," Birkenhake said.
O'Regan is apprehensive about making the step up from school to international handball. "It's a bit daunting and I'm sure I'll be in for some surprises but it's such a great opportunity. The training sessions have been really beneficial but it's a matter of making what I learn become instinctive."
Playing international handball is not a new experience for Anastasiou, who made her New Zealand debut as a 15-year-old, in the 2011 Oceania series against Australia.
She captained the national under-20 side last year and is an enthusiastic advocate for the merits of handball.
"It's got elements of basketball, netball and volleyball and I love its physicality."
Anastasiou still plays basketball and volleyball and umpires netball but regards handball as her passion. "It's the only sport I can see myself playing after high school."
Heleratne, who will have to overcome an ankle injury suffered in training last weekend, is another who was quickly won over by handball. "I love it, it's so much fun.
"It's fast, physical game and I love the intensity. I'm so passionate about it."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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