Centre of attention . . . North Otago centre Gemma Dowling looks for an opening during a game at the New Zealand under-17 netball championships in Palmerston North last week. PHOTOS: SUPPLIED

North Otago coach Abbey McKenzie hopes her gun under-17 netball team has provided a boost for every representative team from the province dreaming of achieving big things on a national stage.

Even McKenzie, a famously optimistic and ambitious coach, was taken aback when North Otago finished 12th out of 42 teams at the fiercely contested New Zealand age-group championships in Palmerston North last week.

To put that in perspective, North Otago finished 26th two years ago, and it was the second-best team from the entire South Island at this year’s tournament.

McKenzie’s youngsters claimed the scalps of Invercargill, Dunedin and North Harbour, before losing in a rematch with Dunedin, 31-21, in the playoff for 11th and 12th.

“It’s huge. It’s absolutely massive. It’s kind of history in the making, because North Otago’s never done this well before,” McKenzie said this week.

“It’s also big, I think, for other North Otago teams going to nationals – basketball, or whatever. They can believe they can do it.

“In some ways, it’s only going to get harder. We have to go back and prove it wasn’t a once-off.”

On the alert . . . North Otago wing attack Molly Hurst eyes an opportunity.

McKenzie said her players had talked about aiming for a top-20 spot, but knew that would not be easy at one of New Zealand sport’s biggest tournaments.

“In my mind, I thought top 16 was a goal I was willing to set, but it was possibly optimistic.

“I tried really hard to sort of put into perspective for the girls. I don’t think it’s really settled in yet, and I don’t know if the girls really understand what they’ve achieved.

“It was just an amazing week. The amount of people sending us messages, and the people talking about it, and the traffic on the North Otago Netball Facebook page, was just unreal.”

One of McKenzie’s favourite moments of the tournament happened after the shock win over Christchurch, when a Netball New Zealand high-performance coach popped down to congratulate the team.

“She said the thing she enjoyed was that she watched a whole team. The nicest thing was that we weren’t flashy individuals – we just played well as a team. And that probably sums us up.

“We’ve got talent. Taneisha Fifita, and her sisters, and Molly Hurst .. they are talented girls. But others around them believe they can do it, and it becomes a whole team thing.”

Steel representative Taneisha Fifita shone in the defensive circle for North Otago, while 15-year-old Charlotte Weir played her way into the starting goal defence bib.

Hurst was her usual effervescent presence in midcourt, and Molly Kay was the model of consistency at goal attack.

Super squad . . . Players and management gather after a hard-fought game.

One area where North Otago did not fare quite so well was shooting, where a 74% success rate was on the low side.

“That was definitely worrying, and it wasn’t great all tournament, but that’s not just about the shooters,” McKenzie said.

“The difference between your really top teams and the rest is that the ones up around the top four were shooting 90%.”

after the trip to Palmerston North as she scooted to Invercargill to take part in a special celebration of netball at the weekend.

She was handed the head coaching role of Netball South’s Beko League team for a game against a team containing some legends of the sport in a reunion of the Southern Sting dynasty at a sold-out Stadium Southland.

“I was really fortunate. It was a pretty amazing experience.”

Netball never stops for McKenzie, who will resume duties with Valley and Southern in both the North Otago and Dunedin club competitions.Sports News/New Releases Nike