With star shooter Bailey Mes laid low, the Northern Mystics will have a troika of teenagers scoring their goals in netball’s revived ANZ Premiership.
Grace Nweke has braced herself for the challenge.
This time last year, the schoolgirl shooter was the phenomenon of the ANZ Premiership; the Avondale College student who, at 1.93m, towered over her Northern Mystics team-mates and had a poker-face coolness under the hoop that belied her 17 years.
She didn’t play the full season; coach Helene Wilson wanted to ease her into netball at the highest domestic level.
Twelve months on, Nweke is now 18 and studying towards a conjoint degree in commerce and science at the University of Auckland. She admits finding it tricky getting the balance of athlete-student life right – as well as learning to study online during a pandemic.
But her biggest challenge this year awaits her. This season, Nweke will be the senior shooter in the Mystics line-up.
Her two goal attacks – Saviour Tui and Asher Grapes – are also teenagers, and are making their debut in the interrupted national league, which resumes in three weeks’ time.
“It’s a bit weird, because it’s only my first full season,” Nweke says. “But it’s almost exciting to have this opportunity to show what we can do as the youngest combination in the league.”
When the Mystics lost their highly-accomplished goal attack Bailey Mes a week ago – forced to quit the season to undergo knee surgery – 19-year-old Grapes was elevated from training partner to replacement for the Silver Fern.
The leap up doesn’t faze the girl from the Hawkes Bay. “There’s always going to be pressure on us, losing Bailey,” Grapes says. “But we can face that. The three of us aren’t in the Silver Ferns, so there aren’t high expectations of us. We’ve just got to go out now and play.”
And coach Wilson isn’t daunted by the scarcity of experience in her shooting circle, either.
“I actually feel like a kid in a lolly shop with the variety we can put on court with this trio,” she says.
Jumping in the deep end
Way back in the summer of 2020, when it was still safe to hang out with friends in public places, the Mystics’ three teenage shooters spent a day together on one of Auckland’s east coast beaches.
Grapes and Tui were jumping off a wharf into the sea, while Nweke watched from the water, where her feet could safely touch the bottom.
“I’m not really a water person,” Nweke admits. “I really wanted to jump off the wharf too – but I also didn’t want to drown. But we all had a great time.”
The three young women were getting to know each other. But little did they realise how important that would be when the netball season resumed again.
All three played together in the Mystics’ opening game of the season, back in March, notching up a 59-55 victory over neighbouring rivals, the Northern Stars.
Nweke and Tui had already played together – albeit briefly – in last year’s New Zealand secondary schools side. “We’d seen each other around at camps, and played against each other in schools, but it was cool to be on the court with her and get a little bit of a combination going,” Nweke says.
“It’s taken some time to figure out where I should go [in the circle], understanding how Saviour naturally plays goal attack. But I can definitely feel our combination growing.”
Tui is learning as she goes, too. She played goal shoot at St Mary’s College in Wellington, before making the Central Manawa side at 16 to play in the Beko League, and was taught the art of goal attack.
Shy, but always grinning, Tui was dubbed “The Smiling Assassin” by her Manawa team-mates. Her accuracy and athleticism were key to the side winning the Beko title for the past two seasons.
In her first year out of school, she’s studying at the Bible college at her Equippers Church in Auckland, but returned home to spend lockdown with her family in Wainuiomata.
It means a great deal to Tui to play at this level. “I’ve wanted to play here since I was little; it’s such an accomplishment. Even in that first game, I noticed it was faster and you had to be stronger as well. It was a big step up,” she says.
“There might be a little bit of pressure on us at the beginning. But we just have to go out there with a ‘no fear’ attitude.”
Grapes went home to Hastings for lockdown. After anchoring the Hastings Girls’ High team, she’d moved to Hamilton last year to play for Waikato-BOP in the Beko League
At the end of her first year studying health sport and human performance at the University of Waikato, she was about to pack her books and head home for the summer, when she got the call inviting her to become this year’s training partner for the Mystics. So she moved to Auckland instead, and is now doing her degree part-time and online.
Promoted into the 10-strong team to replace Mes, Grapes says returning to train with the team over the past week feels much the same as before – “because I’d already been part of the training environment. But now this is the real thing, and it feels pretty amazing.
“I’m looking forward to a new challenge. Especially the new format of the competition – with shorter weeks and more games.”
Rather than lament her bad luck – losing both Mes and Silver Fern defender Michaela Sokolich-Beatson to injury – Wilson is relishing the chance to try something new, with young players she has real faith in.
“The three of them give me a lot of confidence as a coach, as they all have such different strengths,” she says.
“Grace’s height and ability to physically contest with every defender in New Zealand; Asher’s speed and change of direction allows us to have mobility in our circle; and Saviour’s power jump and confidence on the shot really changes the game plan which will keep our opposition guessing.
“The great thing about the youth in our attack end is, when you’re young, you play with instinct and a freedom that excites us all. The complexities of the game haven’t yet clouded your decision-making.
“Combine that with the supportive game knowledge of both [midcourters] Peta Toeava and Emma Iverson, and our teenage trio have the opportunity to shine.”
No one-hit wonder
Nweke doesn’t feel she has yet earned the right to dish out advice to her Mystics team-mates, because she knows she still has “a long way to go”.
But the Silver Ferns development squad member wants to share with her shooting partners the knowledge she’s gleaned over the past year .
“Take everything one game at a time,” she advises them over a Zoom call. “It can get quite overwhelming once you start playing the season, because you have so many games close together and there’s a lot of pressure – on game day, on court, and even coming into the next day’s training. It does start to get a bit much.
“You’re young, you’re the goal attack and you have to perform. So it’s just about enjoying the moment and once that game is over, good or bad, take the learnings from it, and then dump that game. Or you’ll just go crazy.”
Nweke still has Mes to turn to for guidance: “Bailey has so much knowledge and wisdom to share, it’s awesome we can still have her around even though she won’t be on the court.”
But Mes won’t be side-line either. Under the strict guidelines of Level 2, only a small number of people can be at the Auckland Netball Centre for the Friday-through-Monday games. And that means no crowds.
That doesn’t bother Nweke, who’s never liked playing in front of the screaming throngs. The Mystics open the revised season with a Friday night game, on June 19, against the Magic.
“I will probably enjoy not having as many people watching. But in the same sense, you feed off the energy of the cheering, and there’s nothing like a home game,” she says. “But I’m sure we’ll adapt to it quickly.”
It’s Nweke’s personal goal to improve herself in this unconventional season. In 2019, she scored 449 goals over 13 games, with a success rate of 82 percent. She snatched 72 rebounds, too.
She started the year well, sinking 40 of her 43 attempts against the Stars, to top the shooting statistics after the first round.
“Last season I had nothing to lose, I was just soaking everything up,” she says. “I was a surprise to most teams, but it doesn’t take long for people to understand how you play and know you on court. I want to prove that I can perform for the whole season, for the whole 60 minutes, and be a strong shooter – not just a one-hit wonder.
“I think I’ve grown mentally on court. Things that used to faze me, I just don’t think about them as much anymore. I’m focused on having a clear head and just performing more than anything else. I’m definitely a different player than I was when I was finishing school last year.”
* The revised 10-week ANZ Premiership season will feature matches every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday – all broadcast live on Sky Sport 3.