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Big adventure . . . The North Otago under-17 netball team is eager to test itself at the national championships (back, from left): Steve Ross (assistant coach), Kira Mortimer, Molly Kay, Losa Fifita, Holly Beazer, Charlotte Weir, Hannah Cunningham, Abbey McKenzie (coach); (front) Madaleine Mansfield, Molly Hurst, Maikale Fifita, Jasmine Hunter, Gemma Dowling. Absent: Taneisha Fifita. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Abbey McKenzie sees no reason why North Otago should not be aiming high next week.

McKenzie is again coaching one of the province’s elite teams at a national tournament, and hopes her team will shine at the New Zealand under-17 championships in Palmerston North starting on Monday.

“I’m really pleased with this team, and I feel we’re sitting in a good place,” she told the Oamaru Mail

“We’ve got a good mix of experience – girls who have already been to a couple of nationals – and some really exciting, fresh new players who are under-15 but talented enough to be in this squad.”

North Otago will be one of the minnows at the tournament but that does not scare McKenzie.

“We’re not there just to make up numbers. Yes, we are a small area, but we punch above our weight in every single sport.

“Every time we’ve gone to nationals, we’ve gone in seeded really low, and ended up six or seven places above our seeding.

“I am really aiming for the top half of the draw. To do that, we need to get in the top three of our pool, which is definitely doable.”

North Otago is in pool D with Christchurch, Taranaki, Whangarei, Invercargill and Hutt Valley B.

An Oamaru-based team against the entire city of Christchurch might not seem like a fair fight, but McKenzie can’t wait to tackle the bigger teams.

“I approach every game the same, and I don’t worry too much about who they are or where they came from.

“Obviously there are games we will sort of be targeting, but facing powerful teams doesn’t faze me at all.”

After a gap of some years, North Otago sent a team to the national under-17 championships in 2016, and the bulk of that team went to the under-19 tournament last year.

McKenzie said a review of that experience highlighted the need to have the players together more regularly to build combinations and team spirit.

This North Otago under-17 team was able to play every Saturday for seven weeks – it played teams that had the bye in premier club netball – and attended two tournaments, beating South Canterbury under-17, Selwyn under-17, Dunedin B, Central Southland and South Otago.

“We’ve had a lot of time together, and you can tell. It’s made a big difference.

A feature of the team is the presence of the talented Fifita sisters. Rock star Taneisha, who made her debut for the Southern Steel this year, is joined by Maikale and Losa.

The two Mollys, Kay and Hurst, are attacking players with speed and skill, Jasmine Hunter has vast experience in the midcourt, and Charlotte Weird and Holly Beazer will compete for a starting defensive bib alongside Taneisha Fifita.

Gemma Dowling, Hannah Cunningham, Kira Mortimer and Madaleine Mansfield complete the squad.

Another interesting feature is the inclusion of a male assistant coach – still a relative rarity in netball circles.

Steve Ross, who was teaching in Auckland before coming back to Oamaru, was a “great source of knowledge” and had plenty of netball experience, McKenzie said.

Having a male in the management team was also a sign North Otago was conscious of the need to have some diversity in the sport, she said.