Bright Young Things
The tall schoolgirl shows massive promise in netball, writes Talia Shadwell, but she may soon be facing a tough sporting decision.
Fresh from her first game with the Western Flyers, netballer Danielle Gray has all the assurance of a veteran - after all, she has been treading the courts for 11 years.
The fresh-faced Nga Tawa Diocesan schoolgirl donned her first netball bib aged 5. Now, at 16, Danielle can lay claim to being the newest and youngest recruit of the Western Flyers.
The year 12 Marton schoolgirl was selected for Western in August after Taranaki's Sam Burkhart pulled out and selectors sought young blood to fill her spot. There was no trial for Burkhart's vacated position - the young defender's performance in New Zealand secondary schools team trials, and her role in the Manawatu Under-17s' recent victory in Christchurch, were enough. Her dynamism on the court placed Danielle squarely in selectors' sights, says her Nga Tawa coach Marama Cameron.
Despite her tender years, Danielle's selection places her among the best in the Western territory, with fellow players hailing from as far as Taranaki, as well as Manawatu and Horowhenua.
Consumed by nerves for her August 2 debut for Western, Danielle spent most of her first game on the bench but, given just one quarter to prove herself, says she did not let the jitters stand in the way of her performance.
"I was really nervous just about being there. I got in one good intercept and it was the most nerve-racking time in my life."
The 180cm tall netballer may be lacking the years of some of her more experienced Western team-mates. Preferring goal defence above any other position, she certainly has the height required to stare down the tall shooters she meets in the circle.
But the teenager is eager to keep growing, in the knowledge she will be up against some seriously sky-scraping opponents if she chooses a career in netball - a prospect that has crossed her mind.
"I have thought about it,” she says. “I would really like to be a Silver Fern one day but I'll see where it takes me.
"Playing for the Western Flyers has given me more experience and the chance to develop my skills a bit more."
Danielle trains twice a day, every day. And when she is not intercepting netball passes or concentrating on her school work, Danielle devotes what little spare time she has left to competitive horse-riding.
She says she feels lucky to have suffered few injuries so far, and is keenly aware of the ankle and knee niggles that can stop netball players in their tracks.
She says she owes her fast progress into regional level sports to strong leadership from her coaches. "Without their support I definitely wouldn't be able to have got here," says Danielle.
Cameron began coaching Danielle's team only at the start of this year but says the talented Goal Defence had been on her radar for some years. She has little doubt Danielle could carve out a career in netball if she sets her mind to it.
"If she continues the way she has been, I would think she won't have any problem," Cameron says. "She's still got room to move - she keeps getting better and better . . . She's one of those kids who is a very, very good all-rounder, academically as well. She is a real leader on the court."
But if Danielle takes up that challenge, she may have to kiss goodbye to another passion. With the potential for injury, her love for horse riding and netball may one day leave her with a tough choice, Cameron says.
"She's probably going to some day have to make a decision on what comes first. It's pretty challenging to have a career in netball in New Zealand but, if she wants to get to that level, I have no doubt that she'd make it."
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