The Beko League development netball series Grand Final is this coming Sunday in Auckland between the Central and Mainland teams.
Central go in to the final as top qualifier and unbeaten through 10 matches, having done so using 18 players. Five of the 18 have been current secondary schoolgirls, Ainsleyana Puleiata and Renee Savai'inaea (both St Mary’s College), Danielle Tafili (Sacred Heart College, Lower Hutt), Antonia Hei Hei (Manukura) and Jessica Pease (Palmerston North Girls’ High School).
Both Antonia and Jessica are defenders, both are year 13 players captain their school teams and both were recently in the Aotearoa Maori Netball International Secondary School (AMNISS) team that won the International Schools Challenge in Fiji. Both also made their Beko League debuts in Queen’s Birthday Monday’s penultimate round match against the Northern Marvels at home in Palmerston North.
Speaking with College Sport Media, Antonia and Jessica were excited to play their first games.
“Stepping up to that higher level was definitely nerve-racking but being in front of my home crowd was settling for me and I really enjoyed it, said Antonia.
“The girls in the team made it a really welcoming atmosphere,” said Jessica, who joined the squad for the first time for the weekend of her debut match. “It was a really big surprise for me being called in for this match at the business end of the season. I was only there for the Friday night training and then we went into camp on Sunday and played on Monday. It was just the first catch and pass that I was most worried about.”
Antonia has been training with the team, other than the time that she was away with the New Zealand Maori team on their successful Fiji trip. “It’s been a high level of intensity, but I’ve learnt a lot from that as well and coach Nat [Natalie Milicich] has been really good.” Training has included playing practice games against the Pulse squad.
Antonia has been in teams that have beaten Australia in finals three years in a row, for the AMNISS team in Kuala Lumpur in 2015, for the NZSS side in Auckland in 2016 and with AMNISS again last month in Fiji.
For Jessica, this was her first trip away overseas with a New Zealand team. “It was a whole new experience for a lot of us. I had been in the team last year as well, so it was good to beat Australia after losing to them last year in this same team.”
In fact, the last several weeks have been big for Jessica. “At the trials for the AMNISS team [Easter] everyone was so close and I had no idea if I was going to get in or not. Then to get in and then win the tournament and then be called into the Beko team upon my return was really cool.”
Both players played for their school teams at last October’s NZSS championships in Lower Hutt, with Manukura finishing third and Palmerston North Girls’ High School ending up 10th of 16 teams.
Antonia says that Manukura netball is looking up. “In the past years we had finished fifth to ninth so third last year was close. We only lost to champions St Kent’s by 5 goals [33-38] in our semi-final and this year we’ll be confident of going for the final.”
Manukura has a settled team this year too. “We have only lost two players, so we are still a well-gelled team.”
Two of Antonia’s teammates also recently joined her in the AMNISS team at the Fiji tournament. Wing attack Braxton Te Riini (Year 13) and goal attack Princess Tomoana (Year 12)
Goal attack/wing attack Diahn Strickland made the NZSS team last year, but she has been out injured for the first part of this year so wasn’t available for the AMNISS squad.
Both Manukura and PNGHS play in both the Manawatu club and secondary school competitions on Tuesday nights and Saturdays respectively.
Manukura field two teams in the club competition, the school side and one made up of mostly old girls. Antonia, Braxton and Diahn all play in the old girls team. “Just to stretch ourselves a bit more and also to develop some new players in our group because the majority of our school side are older.”
Jessica is co-captain of the PNGHS team, along with another key player Sisavaii Muliaga. But with Sisavaii away with the Samoan U21 team a lot, Jessica is the team’s principal captain at the moment.
PNGHS have lost more school leavers than Manukura. This year their squad has been increased from 10 to 12 players, half of whom are new players this year and half being year 11s.
Both schools are working towards the Lower North Island Tournament in New Plymouth, where a top five finish there will see them qualify for the NZSS tournament in Rotorua in October.
As well as finishing third at nationals last year, Manukura are the defending Lower North Island champions.
PNGHS are confident of qualifying. “I think we have the skill to get to nationals, it is just us believing in ourselves and knowing that we can get be a national side,” said Jessica.
Netball is Antonia’s main sport, saying she plays other sports but only socially. She is originally from Auckland, but came down with her family to Manukura and Palmerston North three years ago. Next year she hopes to study teaching but isn’t sure where yet.
“It depends how netball goes, wherever that takes me will probably what university I end up at but I am happy to wherever there are opportunities.”
Jessica also plays rugby and athletics. “Last year I was lucky enough to get into the Manawatu women’s wider sevens squad, I only played regionals but I’ve learnt so much and am looking forward to playing more rugby in the future.”
“I do a bit of athletics, when I am not playing netball or rugby. Earlier this year I broke the PNGHS 100m hurdles record and I went to North Islands and made the final, finishing sixth.”
From Palmerston North, Jessica isn’t sure yet what she’ll be doing next year, but sporting success could dictate that one.
This weekend, both Antonia and Jessica will be watching the Beko final between Central and Mainland with interest.
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