The Central Pulse reflect on this year and look forward to next
To accurately assess the Central Pulse's 2017 campaign you have to go back to where it started.
"We had a team group goal session and people were like we can't wait to get to the end season and be like 'you thought we were going to come fifth or sixth and here we are at the top of the table and loving proving people wrong'. We couldn't wait for that to happen," captain Katrina Grant said.
It so nearly did.
By Pulse standards, this was the season to beat all seasons. Having never made a single playoff game in 10 years of trying, they ended up in a grand final. They weren't the best team in the national netball premiership but next-best was still pretty good.
We can mutter about the standard of the league now that the Australian franchises are gone, but you can only beat the teams that are put in front of you and the Pulse were able to account for four of this year's five.
The champion Southern Steel team were just that bit better, deservedly winning the grand final 69-53.
When you get to a decider, you want to win it and the Pulse were no different. But some losses are worse than others; it's the context that counts.
"Losing a world cup final, that's heart-wrenching, devastating. Going into this final [we were] disappointed and gutted that we didn't win, but it wasn't full-blown tears of devastation," said Grant.
The novelty was one reason. The other relates to something that happened about two-thirds of the way through the season.
Sitting second on the table, the Pulse lost 80-44 at home to the Steel. Worse was to follow a few days later when the Northern Mystics - who they'd already beaten twice - took care of them 64-53.
Right from that pre-season goal-setting session, the Pulse had genuinely believed they were an elite team and would make the finals. No-one else rated them, but they were certain that history beckoned. Until then.
From planning for a home final, the team now faced the real prospect of going on a prolonged losing run and missing the playoffs entirely.
They were surprised, rather than anxious, and quietly reminded each other of their obligations.
"This is our job and people have moved away from home and moved away from partners and we had to go back to why we were here and what our job was," Grant said.
What followed was, arguably, the most important win the Pulse have ever had. Having narrowly lost to the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic twice already, the Pulse went to Palmerston North and beat them 62-45. Not only did they win but they played well too.
That was just as important to Grant as the result. The team had to convince itself it could still play and a scrappy victory would've fooled no-one.
The satisfied skipper was sold.
"I'd never really been part of a franchise that were able to turn it around before," she said.
Ultimately the Steel were too good. But already their team has taken on a very different look, with star goal shoot Jhaniele Fowler-Reid signing to play in Australia and defender Jane Watson and midcourter Jamie Hume opting for other New Zealand franchises. Captain Wendy Frew also ruptured an Achilles tendon at last week's invitational tournament and might struggle to be fit for next season.
Those absences level next year's playing field substantially.
The Pulse have lost their own goal shoot to Australia - Cathrine Tuivaiti - but Grant is confident of retaining five or six of this year's squad and mounting another playoff run. She and wing defence Claire Kersten, wing attack Whitney Souness and goal attack Tiana Metuarau are essential to any continued success and hopefully defender Phoenix Karaka can be convinced to return too.
Around them, it may be that New Zealand under-21 midcourters Mila Reuelu-Buchanan and Kimiora Poi go from being peripheral members of the squad to playing regular minutes.
So far just head coach Yvette McCausland-Durie has re-signed. This is her second stint in charge and you'd hardly recognise her from first time round.
McCausland-Durie was coach from 2009-11, with Grant arriving in 2010 and becoming captain a year later. Grant's the only player still around from those days.
"She is totally different. Totally different," Grant said of the coach.
"She's definitely relaxed a lot more, she can delegate really well, she knows what she wants, she knows who she wants around and she knows how to get people to work and what makes them tick."
The goal for all of them will be simple in 2018.
"I was so ecstatic to make the grand final. To go through next year and have a chance to take the next step would be next-level," said Grant.