Trans-Tasman netball opposition be warned - the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic are four to six weeks ahead of last year in their preparations to defend their title.
And while they were one of the few teams not to take part in the pre-season summer challenge tournament in Melbourne last weekend - instead honouring commitments in New Plymouth - they look to have successfully filled their goal attack vacancy and built more depth than they have previously enjoyed.
At the same time coach Noeline Taurua is adamant they are not getting carried away with last year's breakthrough championship victory.
''We know that we've just got to keep our feet on the ground and just keep working week by week and looking to be better - we're very aware of that,'' Taurua said after the wins against the Central Pulse and Australian Institute of Sport in New Plymouth's TSB Stadium at the weekend.
''But each week we are progressing so fast as a unit that I'm excited about where my head is going at the moment.''
Taurua said while it was disappointing not be able to go to Melbourne she had got more than expected out of their three pre-season games last week, which not only resulted in high-scoring wins against the Northern Mystics, Pulse and AIS in the space of five days, but also provided all the variety they needed in terms of experiencing different opposition strategies.
While minor niggling injuries kept both Jess Waitapu and Nadia Loveday out of the New Plymouth games, the other 12 in the squad had already achieved new fitness standards set this season which players have to meet in order to get on court.
''Which is fantastic, because it means we are already starting with a squad with high fitness levels so they can run and run, which is always a very good start.
''In comparison to this time last year we are probably four to six weeks ahead of ourselves,'' Taurua said.
In terms of individuals the established players like Leana de Bruin, Casey Williams, Laura Langman, Elias Shadrock and Irene van Dyk had all stepped up and set new standards, while two newcomers in particular have caught the coach's eye.
Cantabrian Ellen Halpenny looks to have filled the vacancy left at goal attack by the departure of Julianna Naoupu and the teenage daughter of former Warriors rugby league captain Steve Price, Jamie- Lee Price, has impressed so much she seems almost certain to get game time during the championship, backing up Shadrock.
With Waitapu injured Halpenny has been getting plenty of court time and has already struck up a natural combination in the shooting circle with van Dyk, which Taurua nominated as her highlight of the pre-season play.
''I'm rapt with Ellen's progress. She's a medium to long shooter anyway, her stats at the moment are between 80 and 90 per cent and she's putting up eight-10 attempts per quarter so her work rate is very high.
''She works and trains hard and she's got a great attitude - she doesn't get pushed over by anybody. She's actually got this air of arrogance that I just love about her but has the ability to finish a long shot.''
Price, just turned 17 and still at school, brought exuberance to the team at wing defence, always came up with ball and her attacking nous and strength through the court was ''amazing''.
'She is very powerful in her body, very strong, and not only that but she has this mental toughness and stamina to just keep going.
''People her age are usually not so physically and mentally as strong as her.
''I can see her out on court this season - that's how good she is.''
Taurua is happy with the progress and attitude of her whole squad and while she said pre-season was not really about the result or the opposition but rather putting together combinations and strategies, the 83-31, 78-71 and 113-59 victories chalked up while giving everyone game time had been significant.
''In previous years we've never been able to put up those numbers. For us, irrelevant of the opposition and where we are at this time of year, those are big numbers and that tracks right through out defence end and attack end - it is very promising,'' she said.
The Magic's first competition game is against the Canterbury Tactix in Nelson on March 24.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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