A historic win on Aussie soil and encouraging signs for the season ahead has Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel coach Janine Southby satisfied.
The Steel return home tomorrow from a five-day tour to Melbourne buoyed by the knowledge they are tracking well towards the 2013 ANZ Championship.
"We are exactly where we need to be and the big thing now is to up the ante. The next four weeks are crucial for us.
"We know what it's about now and we know we can compete but we also know other teams aren't going to stand still," Southby said.
An intense schedule featuring six games in three days provided vital preparation for a Steel team seeking to cement their on-court combinations before the season kicks off in March.
For Southby, the evolving culture within the Steel ranks was clearly evident.
"From a team perspective, the biggest thing I saw out there was the heart that they showed and a real desire to succeed. I think last year it was there in patches but it waned," she said.
"I didn't always see that real fight and hunger and wanting to back each other up and do it for each other. But it was certainly evident here. The challenge for us now is to take what we've done this weekend and build on it to become better and stronger in what we're doing.
"The next four weeks are crucial for us."
Previously touted by some as an area of concern, the Steel's defensive ranks impressed throughout and earned praise from Southby.
"There are some nice connections starting to come there.
"An area that we weren't particulary strong at last year was our ability to put pressure on the shooters and here we've done that quite successfully," she said.
"In the attacking end, Jodi had some good links with both Jhaniele and TP and that's progressed further and in the midcourt that understanding is really starting to come between the players there."
The final day of the tournament earned Steel their first Aussie scalp with a gutsy 36-35 win over the NSW Swifts. The victory was significant as the team's first across the ditch since the ANZ Championship's inception in 2008 and, while only pre-season, banishes a long-standing bogey.
"What I hope they take out of it is some self-belief that they can and will compete," Southby said. "We've got to get over this mindset that it's different over here because it's not. We seem to have this mental block so from that perspective it was good to get that win."
The Steel were the only New Zealand team to record a win over an Australian counterpart during the Summer Challenge tournament and, in their final hitout this afternoon, came agonisingly close to adding another to their tally before succumbing to the West Coast Fever 40-41.
A rugged tussle from the outset, a slim two-goal buffer was the greatest margin achieved during the first half and the score was deadlocked 23-all at halftime.
Youngster Phoenix Karaka was then thrust into the action at goal-keep and displayed a maturity beyond her 18 years to hassel one of the world's best in Australian Diamond Catherine Cox.
Bolstered by a confident display from Jhaniele Fowler, Jodi Brown, Courtney Tairi and Phillipa Finch on attack, Steel nudged ahead to hold a 33-28 advantage going into the final spell.
But a handful of errors early in the phase proved costly as the Fever racked up five unanswered goals to lock it up 36-all with four minutes remaining.
In the shooting stakes, Fowler was again the star performer, nailing 25 of her 28 attempts, with goal attack Brown also impressing with a solid work rate of 15 from 21.
The Steel completed the weekend with a mixed bag of results, including a confidence-boosting 40-31 win over a struggling Mystics outfit, a gut-wrenching 30-28 loss to the Queensland Firebirds, and defeats of 16 and 11 goals against the Melbourne Vixens and the Adelaide Thunderbirds respectively.
- The Southland Times
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