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Off to Wellington . . The North Otago under-19 team heading to the national championships is (from left) Taneisha Fifita, Tivinia Misiloi, Nicole Lowen, Georgia Oakes, Hannah Johnston, Whitney Cleveland (captain), Molly Hurst, Gemma Dowling, Molly Kay and Brytnee Firman. Absent is Caitlin Judd. PHOTO: HAYDEN MEIKLE

Abbey McKenzie is aware of the giant challenge that awaits the North Otago under-19 netball team – and she wants her players to embrace it.

The North Otago team is heading to Wellington for a very rare appearance at the New Zealand age group championships.

The tiny province will rub shoulders with all the big guns of New Zealand netball, and taste a level of competition far removed from what most of the players have previously experienced.

North Otago is seeded 20th out of 20 teams, entirely understandable when you see a list of teams that features Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Manawatu and an English youth side alongside the little battler from the South.

McKenzie, coaching the side alongside Kate Taylor, said the majority of the squad played for North Otago at the national under-17 championships last year.

“That’s probably a big reason why North Otago is sending this team – they had that experience last year, so they know what they are up against.

“In saying that, this will be another huge step up. The level of netball at the under-19s is ridiculously high.

“We’re still a very young team, too. Some of the girls are only 17.”

North Otago’s key player is Taneisha Fifita, the rising star who is fresh off a Beko League campaign with the Georgie Salter-coached South team.

Fifita is best known as a shooter but played for South principally as a defender, and the under-19 coaches will use her at both ends of the court.

Brytnee Firman will also play in both the shooting and defensive circles, while vice-captain Hannah Johnston will bring her experience to a multitude of positions at the attack end.

A feature for North Otago should be its midcourt, led by the tireless dynamic duo of captain Whitney Cleveland and Caitlin Judd.

McKenzie said her side, which plays Waitakere and Harbourside (Bay of Plenty) on the opening day of the tournament on Monday, had a variety of goals for the championships.

“Just to put out a consistent effort on the court every game we play. We’re also keen to get experience for the future, to get a taste of this level of netball.

“We’re confident of giving it a good crack. One advantage we have is that our team know each other so well. I look at other regions that pull from such a vast number of teams, and some of the kids barely know each other.

“Our kids have played a lot of netball together, so that should be a strength for us.”

North Otago’s other pool games are against Nelson and North Harbour.