From the worst possible start to grand final victory, that was the year of the Magic writes Aaron Goile.
As the fulltime whistle sounded in the ANZ Championship grand final, Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic captain Laura Langman scanned her eyes up to the contingent of Magic fans who were in hysterics in the grandstand.
And it was there where she spotted a sign which she reckons best sums up her team's season.
It read: "Zero from four, nek minnit, championship winners".
The Magic's season turned from custard to gold and culminated in a fairytale finish with a thrilling 41-38 victory over the Melbourne Vixens at Hisense Arena in Melbourne.
The only side to have made the playoffs each of the previous four seasons, the Magic had never netted a title, and with the stack of talent they had in their lineup they were again expected to produce the goods.
But after four losses they quickly found themselves in uncharted waters at the bottom of the table and in serious danger of missing the playoffs.
Cue one of the great sporting comebacks.
Even now, Langman and coach Noeline Taurua struggle to nail what actually turned the Magic into a championship-winning outfit - the first New Zealand side to lift the competition trophy.
"Sometimes when you're forced, there's nowhere else to go," Taurua said of the dire situation.
"We just stuck to our same routines and processes. It wasn't an easy time." While the Magic were only losing their games narrowly, Langman said it felt like they were getting beaten by 20, and it was the first time some of the players dreaded going to training and watching the video of their games.
After their one-goal loss to the Vixens in round four, on a Hisense Arena court they would later take the big prize on, the Magic were left despondent, but their coach had to keep spirits as high as she could.
"I remember going back into the changing rooms and saying: ‘How cool would it be if at the moment we are No 10 and we could win this competition'," Taurua said.
With the assistance of sports psychologist David Galbraith, the Magic began to believe in miracles.
"He was over the moon about what was ahead, and we couldn't really believe his reaction," Langman recalled.
"I think his energy and his different way of looking at things certainly challenged us old ones.
"He was a massive part of our campaign." Taurua knew they had to break things down to game-by-game and couldn't afford to look too far ahead.
As the team strung some wins together they began celebrating minor milestones, like creeping up one place on the ladder.
That made them feel rewarded, yet kept things in perspective.
Swiftly the belief came back and the fear wasn't there - the players were just happy to be in the moment.
The Magic's remarkable nine-game winning streak catapulted them to third on the ladder.
And despite the bumpy ride, their expectations weren't lowered come the playoffs.
They produced amazing never-say-die netball to come from behind in two games and book a ticket to Melbourne for the grand final.
"I never had so much heart attack material in my life," Taurua said of the thrilling playoffs.
"At that time as well, with Irene's [van Dyk] mum passing, there was a lot of emotion, there were a lot of things that were happening with the team behind the scenes.
"Because of that fact I think it really took us away from all the hype and the pressure that comes with those games. It really made us live the moment and enjoy being together." Back in the cauldron of Hisense Arena, in front of 9400 noisy fans, the Magic had the chance to do the unthinkable and cap their journey with the title.
"The most exciting thing is when we came out, the Magic supporters, they were so loud," Taurua said.
"It was amazing, you could feel the tingling on your skin. They were very vocal when we actually needed them and they supported us right through."
But down by four at halftime, thoughts of a third grand final defeat crept into Langman's head.
"I think I remember giving Casey [Williams] the wide eyes and the ‘oh goodness, don't let this be happening again' as we jogged off to the changing room." Taurua's last words to the players at the break were to know their jobs and do them, and then she and the bench players spent most of the final quarter on their feet as the emotion of the comeback became so overwhelming.
During the season the Magic had two calls from the sideline - one of "5 per centers" for when they're ahead, for everyone to do the basics well, and the other being "tsunami" for when trailing, to encourage hard attack and defence.
When her team hit the lead with six minutes to play Taurua knew they had it in the bag by looking at the opposition's body language.
And when the final whistle went . . . "I actually felt: ‘Geez I'm tired'," she said. "That was the very first thing for some reason and ‘Thank God that's over and done with'. Then you go through all the celebrations and it becomes a bit surreal to be honest. It's sort of like you're in a dream. And I think that happened for about a week after."
Langman remembers all of the team running into a "huddle cuddle thing" as the pure elation poured out.
"It was a fantastic moment. I think probably, to be honest, one of the best moments in my netballing career.
"I think the Magic stand was all up in arms and then everyone else was sitting down really quiet."
One person Langman quickly thought of was someone she didn't even know - a man from Tauranga the team had come to hear of who had bet on them each week and then went big on them in the finals series.
The championship win made Langman realise that winning teams aren't always plain sailing ones and when she looked up at the sign immediately after fulltime, the accomplishment really hit home.
"I was like: ‘That is priceless'. Who would have thought we could have started with an absolute nightmare of a season and turn it round to produce what was to be a fantastic season in the end." email@example.com
- © Fairfax NZ News
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