The trick to recreating a shooting star
Maia Wilson is being tipped as the next Maria Folau in the Silver Ferns shooting circle. But the 22-year-old has plans to stamp her own unique footprint on netball history.
When the phone rang, Maia Wilson was sure the caller had the wrong number.
Dame Noeline Taurua was on the other end of the line, but that wasn’t the bombshell - Wilson had been a regular in the Silver Ferns environment for a few years.
Taurua immediately asked Wilson: “Are you sitting down?” Then the New Zealand coach of the year told the talented young shooter: “You’re going to be playing goal attack”.
“I absolutely freaked,” Wilson says. “I’m like ‘You know you’re talking to the wrong person, right?’”
For as long as she’s played netball – first making the Silver Ferns as a precocious 18-year-old – Wilson has played at goal shoot. In fact, she’s become one of the most accurate shooters in the country.
But there’s a big difference between the two shooting roles, and to master both is kind of an art.
Although she had been in or around the Silver Ferns since 2016, Wilson’s ability to play just one position was beginning to become a barrier. She missed out on selection for the triumphant World Cup side to players more versatile.
Taurua wanted Wilson to learn to play goal attack, so last June, she put her there in the All Stars team she’d created to play against the Ferns, Fiji and the New Zealand Men in the final build-up to the World Cup.
“Noels said to me ‘You’ve got the fitness to do it, you just need to back yourself’,” Wilson recalls. “But at that point I was very apprehensive. I didn’t want to be out there.”
Nevertheless, Wilson took the opportunity and shone in that series. She got the chance to grow in the new position for the New Zealand A side, and was then rewarded with re-selection in the Silver Ferns for the Australian leg of the Constellation Cup last October.
“I actually realised it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be,” Wilson admits of the GA role. “I know I’m fit enough, and it’s just being smart about how I use my body, being efficient and knowing that I can do it.”
That adaptability - teamed with the dogged work she put in on both her fitness and mental strength - rocketed Wilson into the starting line-up of the new-look Silver Ferns side who won last month’s Nations Cup in England.
For the first time in her career, Wilson started in every test – mostly playing at goal shoot alongside World Cup star Ameliaranne Ekenasio and finishing the tournament with an exceptional 91 percent shooting success rate. She was crowned MVP of the final, and was clearly the revelation of the series.
Wilson puts a lot of that down to that scary phone call from Taurua last May.
“I’m learning how to be a better goal shoot by playing goal attack. And that excites me,” the 22-year-old says.
“Right now, on the New Zealand netball scene, we’ve got some really young tall goal shoots coming through.” Shooters like Ellie Bird, Jen O’Connell, Aliyah Dunn and Grace Nweke. “So having the ability to play both [positions] is definitely a newfound strength for me.”
It also means we could see Wilson in the GA bib for the Northern Stars in this season’s ANZ Premiership, which starts in a month.
Stars coach Kiri Wills says Wilson gives her a “really interesting” option in the Star’s fresh shooting circle.
This year, Wilson is joined by Jamie Hume, who’s crossed town from the Mystics, and Julianna Naoupu, who’s making a long overdue return to elite netball. Since Naoupu, a former Silver Ferns squad member, played for Samoa at the 2015 World Cup, she’s been unable to play as a New Zealand eligible player until this year.
All three combinations are so different, Wills says: “And I’m one of those coaches who like to play those games.” Wilson at goal attack will be a handful for the opposition, she predicts.
“I also think with that freedom and space at goal attack, she’s not getting hit all the time, so she’s enjoying that freedom,” says Wills.
“Because she’s fitter now, she’s able to change her positioning if the defenders change on her. If an option gets taken away, she can very quickly offer something else. That’s been massive for her.”
While Wills would like to claim some of the credit in Wilson’s growth in the past year, she says it’s all come down to the young shooter’s personal work.
“Noels put in the standards, and Maia’s been determined to meet them. She’s always been big and strong and able to hold good angles. But now she’s able to change it up more often and be available,” Wills says.
“That was the big thing for the Ferns in England. When Maia was on court, the shooting volume went up.”
Taurua was happy too, telling Stuff during the series that Wilson had done the hard graft and was "physically a beast out there".
A founding member of the new Northern Stars in 2017, Wilson is now part of the team’s senior leadership group.
“It’s weird because there are girls coming through now and they’re 20, and I’m only 22,” she says. “But it makes me smile, knowing that I have been around and I’ve put in the work.
“I don’t have an older head at goal attack with me anymore, so that also gives me the opportunity to lead.”
Wilson has always had a maturity beyond her years - something instilled in her at high school, playing for Mt Albert Grammar School during their four-year domination of national secondary school netball (2012-15), under the guidance of former Silver Ferns shooter Te Aroha Keenan.
“My time at MAGS was a great foundation for a young netballer,” she says. “We learned what we thought were the basics, but they were beyond basics at that age group. It meant I was then able to play with older girls and women.” In her first year out of college she went straight to the Central Pulse – the double international turning down a lucrative basketball scholarship at the University of Idaho.
“I know I don’t have to open my mouth to be a leader. I know I have a voice, and I can use it, but one thing I’m going to do now is to sit back, watch a bit more and let everyone else find their voice.”
Wilson’s outstanding performance at the Nations Cup - shooting 137 from 151 against England, South Africa and Jamaica – had fans wondering if she was the answer to the question mark left by the recent retirement of Ferns shooting legend Maria Folau.
“Maria is amazing, she always was, and she’s paved a great pathway for someone like me,” says Wilson.
“But I’m not trying to fill her footsteps – I’m trying to do something different with my own. I do things different to Maria – and to Ameliaranne, Bailey [Mes] and Te Paea [Selby-Rickit].
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity [in England], but I know that just because it happened, it doesn’t guarantee I will still be there. I’m very mindful of that.
“There wasn’t that much pressure on me, but if I keep thinking about it, it will build, and there’s no need to do that. I’m just trying to enjoy where I’m at in my netball.”
Wilson - who's studying for a degree in communications off the court - thrived on the relaxed culture in the Silver Ferns. With veterans Laura Langman and Katrina Rore taking a sabbatical, Wilson was also thrilled to see fellow young players Whitney Souness and Kimiora Poi "finally get solid minutes” in the black dress.
But there was probably no one as excited about her time in the limelight than her mum, Karena, who travelled to England with Maia’s brother, Kahikatea, and her step-dad.
“Mum is still buzzing,” Wilson laughs. “She’d never been in the crowd when I’d got on for the Silver Ferns for a decent amount of time. Mum is one of the Stars’ No.1 supporters - she gets the crowd going.”
Wilson also felt the presence of her late dad, Joe, who passed away suddenly from a brain tumour in 2016.
“I was very close to my dad, so losing him was really hard. I was 18, and living away from home with the Pulse,” she says.
“But knowing that I get to carry his name is massive for me; I still get to wave his flag wherever I go.”
As she’s training at the Stars’ home at Pulman Arena on a sweltering summer’s afternoon, she’s reminded of him too.
“Being here in South Auckland, I know he would have been here at all our games, watching me play. I think it’s special to remember that no matter where I go in netball, he’s still with me. And that’s a motivation and inspiration to play for him.”
* The ANZ Premiership starts on March 15. All games will be live on Sky Sport 3.