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Netball’s scintillating next generation of middies

The middle of the court has been a niggling problem for the Silver Ferns in recent years. But a future solution looks to be on the way. 

A new generation of exciting netball midcourters are making their names known in this year’s ANZ Premiership.

They are confident, fleet of foot, savvy, yet young. Some even possess height, which hasn't been a prerequisite in New Zealand international sides, but certainly helps. 

Even Silver Ferns coach Noeline Taurua has been impressed by the young talent she’s seen in the competition this season.

“There are youngsters out there who are looking very good for the future, and I must say it’s been really cool to see,” she says, not ruling out taking youth to the World Cup in July.

LockerRoom talks to four middies with bright futures ahead of them (Note: they are listed in geographical order).

TAYLA EARLE

Age: 18

Positions: C, WD, WA, GD

Tayla Earle has drawn a “timeline” of her netball career since she was an intermediate kid but, so far, she’s light years ahead of where she’d planned to be.

Last year's NZ secondary schools player of the year left Saint Kentigern College wanting to go on to "harder challenges" in netball. She hoped to make it into a Beko League team this season, and play there for five years before breaking into the ANZ Premiership.

But Earle has leap-frogged straight into the Northern Mystics, where she has a regular spot in the starting seven. Her lightning-fast touches and ability to read the game – especially feeding lobs in to new teenage shooter Grace Nweke – have been mind-boggling from a player so young.

“I didn’t expect to come straight here,” Earle says. “But I love a good challenge, and I’ll try to work as hard as I can, to do what I do the best for the team. I’m loving the intensity of it.”

Of Ngāti Paoa descent, Earle still calls Rotorua home, where her family live. With netball commitments and her first year at university,  it’s tough getting home.

She’s doing a bachelor of sport and recreation, with a double major in management and exercise science nutrition. That features on her timeline too.

“I bleed netball, and I want to stay involved in the sport for a long time. So in my future career outside of the game, I want to create a gym, and incorporate netballers into it. I’m already saving for it,” she says.

Becoming a Silver Fern is also on the timeline, but she’s not sure where it sits right now. She’s on a steep learning curve in the meantime.

Earle has always been a defender, who admittedly struggled on attack. “So I’m learning a lot about attack. The girls tell you where to go – not verbally but with their eyes, with the ball," she says. 

“I’m absolutely loving it. This is my dream; this is the sport I love.

“I love playing centre, but I’ve actually always wanted to be a goal shoot. I’d love to shoot some time.”

Mila Reuelu-Buchanan has been a stand-out at wing attack and centre for the Northern Stars this season. Photo: Getty Images

MILA REUELU-BUCHANAN

Age: 20

Positions: WA, C, GA

Mila Reuelu-Buchanan is grateful for the time she spent warming the bench for the Pulse last season.

The dynamic and perceptive midcourter moved north to the Stars this year, who’ve kept their promise to give her more court-time.

“It was a bit of a tough season last year, but I really learned a lot sitting on the bench,” she says. “So now I’m out there enjoying it. And when I’m enjoying it, I play my best netball.”

She’s also revelling in playing alongside one of her netball idols, Temepara Bailey.

“I was excited to have her and Kiri [Wills] as my coaches, but to actually play alongside Bubby is fantastic. She’s a legend of the game, and we're all learning so much from her."

Reuelu-Buchanan, who is Ngāti Porou and a graduate of Wellington East College, has shown promise since being named 2015 NZ secondary schools player of the year. She was part of the NZ U21 team who won the World Cup two years later, coached by Wills. She’s also played touch for New Zealand, at under-15 level.

It’s been hard to leave her family and partner in Porirua, but she doesn’t regret it. “Getting game time makes the transition easier,” she says.

Feeding shooter Maia Wilson again has strengthened her decision-making skills. “I’ve fed Maia for many years - in New Zealand secondary schools and U21s,” she says. Favouring wing attack over centre, she’s refining her movement around the circle edge, and coming to grips with the speed of the game at this level.  

“Like most girls, I want to make the Silver Ferns. It’s my ultimate goal. I know I need to stay consistent and be in the campaign for a while," she says. 

Determined to challenge herself outside netball, Reuelu-Buchanan is in her third year of study towards a degree in social work. “I’ve always had a passion for working with the lower socio-economic communities. I want our statistics to come down in Porirua. At the end of the season, I'll make it just in time for placement. So it's all working out well.”

Maddy Gordon has burst onto the national league this season without a hint of rookie jitters. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography. 

MADDY GORDON

Age: 19

Positions: C, WA, WD

A bundle of explosive energy, Maddy Gordon could have shot off in any sporting direction at the end of her school years.

The girl who grew up in Whangarei - but did her last two years of school at Mt Albert Grammar - excelled in netball, volleyball, athletics, cross-country and, in particular, swimming.  

But she chose netball, and a move to Wellington straight out of school, to play for Central Manawa in the Beko league last year. (She also chose not to dabble in other sports to avoid the risk of a “silly injury”).

In her first foray into the ANZ Premiership this season, she’s already showing an amazing degree of fearlessness in the star-studded Pulse. She lists speed and fitness as her two greatest assets, but adds that she’s not afraid of playing at elite level.

“I take any time on court with two hands, so I just go for everything out there,” she says. “The physicality is a big step up, so is the ball speed. Good ball speed wins the game in ANZ, I think.”

Gordon has played most of her netball at centre, but she’s learning to play wing attack on the fly, which is “kind of fun and different”.

On court, she looks to Claire Kersten for her leadership. “I always have a calm head when I’m working with her, because she’s always talking to me,” Gordon says.

It’s her goal to make the NZ U-21 team for the 2021 World Youth Cup, and to eventually make the Silver Ferns.

Off the court, Gordon is a waitress, waiting for the right time to apply for the police, where she wants to become a detective.

“Being in the Pulse is honestly so cool. It’s grown me as a person, on and off the court. I enjoy waking up every morning know I’m going to train with these girls. We’re just one big family.”

Steel wing defence Kate Heffernan aspires to be a double international; she's already halfway there. Photo: Michael Bradley Photography

KATE HEFFERNAN

Age: 19

Positions: WD, C, WA

Kate Heffernan isn’t turning her back on an international cricket career. But as her netball career begins to blossom, she knows she will have to make a choice between the two codes. It's just not yet. 

It has been an astonishing 12 months for Heffernan. The Dunedin teen debuted for the White Ferns against the West Indies last March and, this autumn, she’s become one of the newbies making a big impression in the Southern Steel.

“I realised last season that if I wanted to go far in one or the other [sport], I’d need to really commit to it. I’ve been so lucky with the opportunities netball has given me, and I knew I couldn’t take it for granted. I needed to fully go for it,” she says.

“But I don’t want to give my cricket up. Everyone thinks I’ve quit, but it’s not like that. I would definitely go back to cricket, maybe next season because there will be a bigger gap between the two seasons.”

Is it any surprise that Heffernan has such prodigious talent, considering her mother, Annette Heffernan, and her aunt Maxine Blomquist, were both Silver Ferns?

And Kate’s twin sister, Georgia, is an up-and-coming shooter for the Southern Blast in the Beko League, who is called into the Steel now and again.

What is surprising is that Kate Heffernan is making a name for herself at wing defence – a position she’d never played before joining the Steel.

“All through school and age group netball, I was always a centre; I barely touched another position,” she says. “But I was always a defensive centre, so I was told if I rise up to the higher levels, I’d be more dominant at wing defence. And I’m loving it.”

She admits to sometimes struggling with the intensity of premiership netball: “It’s a challenge coming up against some of the best wing attacks in the world.”

But her inherited height – 1.81m – gives her an advantage in the midcourt. “I might move faster than other tall people. But the game is so fast, I’m still learning to read it at speed.”

She’s thriving learning from senior players in the Steel, like Gina Crampton, Shannon Saunders (nee Francois) and Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit. “What I love about the Steel is everyone is so close, there are constructive conversations all the time,” she says.

Heffernan wants to follow in her defender mother’s footsteps and become a Silver Fern. “But I’m so young, I’m just happy playing netball. In the next couple of years, I'd also love to find a subject to study [she’s doing a psychology paper this year]. Something that I’m passionate about, outside sport.”

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