Southern Blast assistant coach Abbey McKenzie. PHOTO: REBECCA RYAN

Netball is Abbey McKenzie’s happy place. The Southern Blast assistant coach chats to Rebecca Ryan about her fifth season with the National Netball League team, and why she almost gave it all up last year.

In November 2020, Abbey McKenzie thought she would have to step away from netball coaching altogether.

After experiencing seizures over the previous two years, the biggest of which came on November 8, the Oamaru netball stalwart and Southern Blast assistant coach was diagnosed with epilepsy, and told she was not allowed to drive for a year.

For someone who spent a lot of time on the road, travelling between Oamaru and Dunedin at least twice a week for netball trainings and games, it was a ‘‘real eye opener’’.

McKenzie (35) knew she needed to prioritise her health, and initially could not see how she could continue with the Southern Blast, when the role required so much travel.

But the people around her did not want to see her give it all up, knowing how hard she had worked to get to where she was and how much joy netball brought her.

Her mother and father, Christine and Duncan Kingan, offered to share driving duties to get her to Dunedin twice a week, and her husband, Hamish, ‘‘was just incredible’’ at keeping things together at home and looking after their two daughters, Harper (8) and Milla (5), so she could make it work.

It had taken time to adjust to her diagnosis, and she was much more vigilant about ensuring she listened to her body now, but McKenzie said she was now feeling ‘‘good, really good’’.

The National Netball League (NNL), which sits directly below the ANZ Premiership and serves as a pathway for players and coaches to the elite level, got under way on March 5, and the Southern Blast is third on the table at present.

McKenzie has been assistant coach for three years, appointed to the role after spending two years as an apprentice coach under the late Georgie Salter. She travels to Balclutha for trainings twice a week, and across the country for games each weekend.

She also spends a lot of time on Zoom, for meetings and workshops, and analysing and giving feedback on players’ performances.

She put a lot more time into the role than she was contracted for — but she did it for the love of it, and knew the more she put in, the more she she would get out of it.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major effect on the entire sporting sector over the past two years. The 2020 season of NNL, formerly known as the Beko Netball League, was cancelled, and the Omicron outbreak was presenting challenges this year.

But the team had good management systems in place, and everyone was getting used to adapting to the constant changes.

‘‘I think, for us, we’re just exceptionally grateful that we’re playing netball, and that we’re allowed to, and can continue to do what we love.’’

This year’s Southern Blast squad was young, but exciting.

‘‘There’s lots of potential.

‘‘They’re very eager to learn, which is cool — they’re very coachable.’’

McKenzie and head coach Jo Morrison had both worked under Salter at different times, and as a result had similar coaching styles and worked together well.

‘‘Jo and I are very similar — but very different at the same time,’’ McKenzie said.

‘‘I’m really grateful to Jo that she gives me loads of input, whereas there are assistant roles where that doesn’t happen.’’

She loved everything about netball coaching — especially seeing the growth in the young players throughout the season.

‘‘As much as at times, when you’re in the thick of it and you’re travelling and you’re really tired, it’s just seeing the growth in each player is really exciting,’’ she said.

‘‘But also, the life skills that you’re teaching them along the way, and there’s just something about seeing a group of girls come together and do something special and see them build each week that keeps you going back.’’

Coming together . . . Southern Blast players and coaches come together in a huddle. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Netball has been part of McKenzie’s life since she was young. She started playing about age 7, for Maheno, and was getting picked for representative teams from age

It was at Waitaki Girls’ High School where she started coaching netball, and when she left school, she spent two years in England, working at a private girls’ school and coaching, before returning to New Zealand to study.

When she moved back to North Otago, she spent five years with Valley Netball Club as a player and coach, and also started coaching North Otago under-15s, under-17s and under-19s.

Salter encouraged McKenzie to pursue coaching at a higher level, and suggested she start accompanying her to coach Southern, in Dunedin’s premier grade. When Salter started coaching the Southern Blast, McKenzie shadowed her as an apprentice coach.

‘‘There’s a common thread here — I wouldn’t be where I am without [Georgie], 100%.’’

And Salter’s influence continues — McKenzie and Morrison still hear her voice a lot when they are coaching the Blast, and every time McKenzie drives along Katiki strait, there was always an overwhelming sense that Salter was right there with her.

The highest level McKenzie reached as a player was Otago under-17s, and she saw that as a potential barrier to progress her coaching career. At the top level of New Zealand netball, a lot of coaches are ex-Silver Ferns, or have played at an elite level.

‘‘So I find it really hard to see if that could ever be an option for me, because I didn’t play that level,’’ she said.

‘‘But I don’t feel like coaching should be on that merit.’’

If she never took that step up to head coach at NNL level, a coaching role in the ANZ Premiership or beyond, it would not bother her. But if the opportunity presented itself, she would not turn it down.

‘‘I’m a long way from wanting to go to that next level, but it’s always in the back of your mind,’’ she said.

There were also challenges being based in Oamaru, but McKenzie wanted to prove to young players and other aspiring coaches that they did not need to move somewhere else for opportunities. Former Waitaki Girls’ pupils Taneisha Fifita and Jennifer O’Connell had shown there was a pathway from Oamaru to the elite level, playing for the Southern Steel in recent years.

‘‘You can do it, if you’re willing to put in the work — and you don’t need to move to a different high school, or move to a different town to make it happen,’’ McKenzie said.

Outside of netball, McKenzie runs her own occupational therapy business, and she was grateful for the flexibility it gave her to fit coaching in.

Working full-time and with two young children, netball was McKenzie’s outlet — ‘‘it’s the thing I do for me’’ — and getting to travel around New Zealand as part of the role was a bonus.

When the NNL wraps up in May, her focus will shift to North Otago netball.

She has been appointed to the role of coaching development officer in North Otago, and is looking forward to working with coaches, supporting their trainings and running workshops and courses, this season.

Coaching could be a tough job and McKenzie was ‘‘really excited’’ about supporting coaches across the district in her new role.

‘‘I know as a coach it can be a pretty lonely gig, and it can be pretty taxing and challenging at times,’’ she said.

‘‘To support our coaches is really, really important.’’

She was also looking forward to spending more time in Oamaru, and being on the sidelines to watch her daughters’ netball games.