The New Zealand Under-17 women’s football team stunned the World last year when they finished third at the FIFA World Cup, the highest placing by a Kiwi team in a major FIFA tournament.
Goalkeeper Anna Leat, presently on scholarship at Georgetown University, won the SPS Handa Halberg Award for New Zealand’s Favourite Sporting Moment. Leat made a series of spectacular saves in the quarter final penalty-shootout against Japan to propel New Zealand into the top four.
Ariana Gray from Hutt Valley High School was a keen observer of Leat’s feats and concedes there is some pressure to match her excellence when she appears for New Zealand in an U-16 tournament from 14 to 22 July in Weifang City, China.
“There’s a little bit of pressure because I want to do the best for my country. It’s an exciting challenge to have such a high benchmark,” Gray said.
No players are returning from last year’s U-17 World Cup, but Grays insists New Zealand are a “tight unit” with plenty of talent.
“We’ve been through a whole lot of rep camps together so we know each other pretty well. We have a good chemistry and heaps of talent.”
Gray is the only Wellington selection and laughs she “screamed” when receiving email notification of her selection which she attributes to the Petone club and her parents.
“Petone have been amazingly supportive. We often train with the men who really push us. I’d like to thank my parents, they’re amazing.”
Gray started her football as a striker in Year 6. She is also a defender in netball and an avid touch player having traveled to the Gold Coast with a New Zealand team who won an international title.
Gray’s primary focus at present is football. New Zealand’s opposition in China isn’t yet confirmed, but coach Leon Birnie stressed it will be a learning curve.
“It will be a real eye-opener for the players in terms of the level required and, for the staff, it’s an excellent opportunity for us to see what these players can do. They need to go out and showcase themselves, both individually and collectively. It should give us real clarity around where we’re at, which would be a good space to be in 15 months out from the World Cup.”
Following the U-16 tournament thoughts will turn to the Oceania qualifiers for the World Cup, which are scheduled to take place this December.
Gray concluded by praising the management of Birnie.
“Leon’s a really nice guy. He’s a real technical coach, but he knows when to have a laugh. I’m really confident were going to do well.”
New Zealand squad for U-16 women’s tournament in China
Ariana Gray (Capital/Petone/Hutt Valley High School)
Murphy Sheaff (Australia)
Ella Dorward (Northern/Forrest Hill Milford United/Westlake Girls’ High School)
Kate Taylor (Mainland/Cashmere Technical/Marian College)
Claudia Wilson (Mainland/Cashmere Technical/Burnside High School)
Freya Lodge-Whitham (Mainland/Waimakiriri United/Christchurch Girls’ High School)
Zoe McMeeken (Mainland/Selwyn United/Lincoln High School)
Alaina Grainger (Northern/Forrest Hill Milford United/Mt Albert Grammar School)
Samantha Senior (Mainland/Cashmere Technical/Rangi Ruru Girls’ School)
Alyssa Whinham (Mainland/Halswell United/Riccarton High School)
Mona Walker (Australia)
Kate Duncan (Auckland/Three Kings United/Baradene College)
Nina Kondo (Capital/Wairarapa United/Solway College)
Ava Pritchard (Northern/Forrest Hill Milford United/Westlake Girls’ High School)
Charlotte Lancaster (Central/Taradale/Napier Girls’ High School)
Ella Russ (Auckland/Three Kings United/Diocesan School for Girls)
Lisa Evans (WaiBOP/Otumoetai/Otumoetai College)
Alisha Braun (Auckland/Eastern Suburbs/Epsom Girls’ Grammar School)
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