Bygate adds a spark

ON HER WAY: Jess Bygate is moving on up in American college basketball.
MARION VAN DIJK/Fairfax NZ
ON HER WAY: Jess Bygate is moving on up in American college basketball.

They like Kiwis in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Especially if they are skilled at shooting a leather ball through a metal hoop.

The city on the banks of the Mississippi River is home to Southeast Missouri State University which, for the next three basketball seasons, will also be home to Nelson's Jess Bygate.

The 20-year-old forward is about to have her third change of address since completing her schooling at Nelson College for Girls, spending a year at Lincoln University near Christchurch, then studying and playing basketball for a season at Moberly Area Community College in Missouri.

In her freshman (first) year, the 1.86m forward finished in the top three in the major statistical categories for the Moberly Greyhounds, checking in with 11 points and six rebounds a game while continuing the business (sports and recreation) degree she had started at Lincoln.

This season, she is headed to Southeast Missouri State, along with New Zealand Tall Ferns guard Jordan Hunter, to play Division 1 college basketball for coach Ty Margenthaler and the Redhawks.

"It was a school that was interested in me from the start but the timing wasn't right," Bygate said.

"Moberly turned out to be a great stepping stone, getting me into the college system and getting a feel for how the game goes over there without that instant expectation that comes with having a full scholarship at a Div 1 school."

Bygate will head back to Missouri in a couple of months but, before then, she gets the chance to play with friends and former rivals with the Nelson Sparks in the women's national basketball championship.

The women's league differs from the men's equivalent in that there are no week-in, week-out home and away games. Instead, the season is staged over three three-day tournaments, with the first in Nelson's Saxton Stadium from tomorrow until Sunday.

The Sparks, who won the second division competition in 2010, made their return to the national league last season and played their way through to a finals match, where they were beaten by eventual champions, Otago. Eleven teams have entered the league this year, from Waitakere in the north to the Southland Pearls from Invercargill.

Bygate played fleetingly for the Canterbury Wildcats last season, averaging 12 points and 10 rebounds, numbers which will be a huge asset in a Nelson squad which usually lacks interior size.

"We have got a heap of talented players," Bygate said. "Because there are mums and school students and players like myself who won't be able to make every tournament, it is a little unstructured, but the experience and talent in the team should make up for that."

Sparks captain Kat Jones and team-mates Nicky Rampton and Lisa Book have eight children between them and Bygate says training can look more like a kindy than a court but the mix, under coach Tatjana Zizic, is a happy one.

"I've really enjoyed it so far. At college, there's not a lot of time for fun but the Sparks are a good group of girls. They are still there to win but sometimes you need to be a bit more flexible if someone has to leave early to get the kids' homework sorted," she said.

The Sparks, who have backing this season from Richmond Mall and the Radio Network, open their campaign at 9am tomorrow with a game against Joe Frost's tall Palmerston North Storm squad, which also includes a former Nelson player in guard Helen Richardson.

Their evening game is a 7pm showdown with Taranaki while they have just one game on Saturday, a 3pm meeting with the Southland side, who have to front without their two-sport stars, forwards Donna Wilkins and Te Huinga Selby-Rickett, who have netball obligations.

Tight travel schedules for visiting squads mean the Sparks are back on the court at 8am on Sunday to play Waitakere West Auckland, while they close the weekend with a 3pm game against Bygate's former Canterbury team-mates.

One side Nelson will not face this weekend is Waikato, who have the incomparable Carolyn Grey on the roster, still playing national league basketball as she approaches her 58th birthday.

"It's hard to know what to expect as not every team will have the same roster for all three tournaments," Bygate said. "But it's going to be great to play in Nelson again. I've jumped around a bit but it is always a bit of fun to come home."

Women's national basketball league, 9am tomorrow until 3pm Sunday, Saxton Stadium, Stoke. Entry by gold coin donation, children free with an adult or $5 for a three-day pass from Richmond Mall or Basketball Nelson at Jack Robins Stadium in Stoke. Full draw available at basketball.org.nz.

The 2012 Nelson Sparks full roster is: Kat Jones (captain), Jo Andrew, Lisa Book, Jess Bygate, Jaime Campbell, Ashleigh Dellabosca, Jane Gowans, Jodi Hikuroa, Lily Hospers, Shannon Perrett, Nicky Rampton, Gracie Roberts, Kaitlyn Stringer, Jelena Vucinic, Hana Wilkinson. Coach Tatjana Zizic, assistant coach Chris Varcoe, manager Alison Perrett.

The Nelson Mail