Women of Steel chosen with eye to future
Watching Southern Steel's final round game against the Melbourne Vixens in Invercargill earlier this year, it was hard not to feel sorry for the team.
As the goals started racking up against the southerners, heads began to drop, and you could sense the anguish in the players' body language out on court.
The Steel would go on to cop an 18-goal drubbing - their 10th consecutive loss - to close out what can only be described as a trying campaign for rookie trans-Tasman netball league co-coaches Janine Southby and Natalie Avellino.
It was a season which started so brightly for the Steel.
They staged a miraculous comeback to upset eventual champions the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic in their opening game. Two weeks later, the Steel then knocked over the Canterbury Tactix in a close-fought encounter in Christchurch, which left them sitting in the top four, heading into week four.
That was as good as it would get for Steel fans, however, with athletic midcourter Courtney Tairi succumbing to a season-ending knee injury mid-season, and confidence levels plummeting as the losses piled up.
Southby and Avellino are back for their second season in the hot seat in 2013, but their job titles have changed slightly. Dunedin-based Southby will operate as head coach, with Avellino acting as the assistant coach.
The challenge awaiting the duo is one of the toughest in the trans-Tasman netball league. Unlike many of their more fancied opponents, the Steel squad is not blessed with international star power. Instead, they comprise emerging talent who represent the future of New Zealand netball and honest grafters such as Phillipa Finch and Wendy Frew, who would rather lose skin diving for a loose pass than pose for the cameras.
Southby and Avellino will need to establish a culture of success within the group. With a team that has became accustomed to losing, that could prove difficult in one season.
So how do the Steel go about turning things around in 2013?
"You probably learn more from losses than you do wins," Southby said.
"When you lose, you look at everything. They will have learned. The learning they will have done will be huge."
A huge emphasis in the off-season has been placed on conditioning. The trans-Tasman netball league is a demanding, 13-round campaign, and the Steel appeared to run out of gas as the season wore on. The Steel players have been carrying out individual training over the past few months and Southby said it was important they kept up their workloads over the festive season.
The squad will be together again in Invercargill for the start of preseason on January 15.
"The message to the players is, it's a couple of weeks until preseason starts and you need to be at a good shape to handle the load," Southby said.
"The conditioning has to be really top going into preseason."
Steel strength and conditioning coach Simon Jones will travel to all the team's away games next season, which will be a major boost.
Looking at the Steel squad for next season, the strength appears to lie in the middle third of the court. In the experienced Finch and Frew, and fringe Silver Ferns Tairi and Shannon Francois, the Steel have a more than useful midcourt mix. Tairi, Francois and Finch were beginning to develop into a dependable trio this season, until Tairi was struck down by injury.
"Im really excited about that," Southby said.
"They showed real potential this year. What they lacked was that game-time together. Hopefully they can really build from that understanding and what they did this year."
In the shooting circle, the Steel have been rocked by the off-season departure of former Silver Fern Donna Wilkins to the Robyn Broughton-coached Central Pulse. Wilkins was brilliant for the Steel in 2012, and was the third most accurate shooter in the competition at 90.4 per cent.
Wilkins' replacement in the shooting end next year will be towering Jamaican import Jhaniele Fowler who, at 1.98 metres, is the tallest player in the league.
It will be interesting to see how Fowler adjusts to the cooler temperatures of the south and the pressures of playing in the world's premier club netball competition for the first time.
Silver Fern and this year's Steel captain Jodi Brown will start in the goal attack position next season, while New Zealand under-21 international Te Paea Selby-Rickit will be aiming to push for increased court-time in her third season in the Steel dress.
"It's quite exciting in that area. Jodi is one of the best distributors in the game and then you bring in someone like Jhaniele and an up-and-comer like Te Paea," Southby said.
The Steel have lost plenty of experience in their defensive stocks with Australian Demelza McCloud heading to the Queensland Firebirds and former Silver Fern Sheryl Scanlan retiring.
New Zealand under-21 captain Storm Purvis, who had a pleasing rookie season for Steel this year, looms as the first-choice option at goal defence, with either Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic recruit Sulu Tone-Fitzpatrick or veteran Rachel Rasmussen expected to partner her at goal keep.
Southby is excited about the calibre of players in next year's Steel squad and believes there would be strong competition for spots during preseason games.
With eight of the Steel squad aged 22 or under, the side has clearly been built with the future in mind.
The top four playoffs would be too high an expectation for 2013, but the Ascot Park Hotel-sponsored Steel will need to take positive steps forward and show that progress has been made from this season.
"If we could finish in the top half of the draw, we'd be doing really well.
"The big thing is, it's not just a one-year project.
"We've got to start looking long-term," Southby said.
"From my perspective, if they play to their potential and they do the processes well on court, around our game plans, the sky is the limit."
2013 SOUTHERN STEEL
Gains: Wendy Frew (back from birth of child), Sulu Tone-Fitzpatrick (Magic), Rachel Rasmussen (Mystics), Jhaniele Fowler (Jamaica), Kate Shearer, Stacey Peeters, Phoenix Karaka.
Returning: Jodi Brown, Shannon Francois, Storm Purvis, Te Paea Selby-Rickit, Courtney Tairi, Phillipa Finch, Gina Crampton
Losses: Donna Wilkins (Pulse), Demelza McCloud (Firebirds), Sheryl Scanlan (retired), Louise Thayer (Tactix), Hayley Saunders, Ashleigh Smith.
The Southland Times