Talented teenage shooter Khiarna Williams is committed to travelling 18 hours a week – after school – to realise her netball dreams.
Three times a week, 17-year-old Khiarna Williams gets picked up from school to make a six-hour round trip, from Whakatāne to Hamilton, to train with the Magic.
Her designated driver is the Magic’s assistant coach, Mary-Jane Araroa, who also lives in Whakatāne.
Wouldn’t you expect the pair to have long and meaningful conversations about netball?
Nope. Williams, Araroa says, is a sleeper.
“Mate, as soon as I pick her up and we’re driving out the school gates, it’s like she’s gone-burgers,” laughs Araroa. “But I don’t mind at all.” The pair have been making the return trip together – complete with packed dinners eaten on the drive home – for the past three years.
Araroa has watched the young shooter rise through the ranks, first coaching her in 2017 when Williams made the Waikato Bay of Plenty’s team in the Beko League – the development competition below the ANZ Premiership – when she was just 14.
“That was the first year for me on a netball pathway to high performance,” says Williams, who’s in her final year at Trident High School. “That was really exciting, because I was so young and it was really good to play with older women.”
Williams also made the New Zealand Secondary Schools team that year, travelling to Canberra to play Australia and England, with Araroa also coaching her there.
This year she became a training partner with the Magic, but has been promoted into the playing squad, with Australian shooter Georgia Marshall unable to rejoin the team. She’s got on court in the last two ANZ Premiership games in Auckland.
Araroa, a former Auckland and North Harbour shooter, has had an illustrious coaching career, and is the perfect person to take Williams under her wing.
Among her roles have been coaching the Northern Force at just 26, assistant coach of the Fast5 Ferns, and guiding the New Zealand Māori side for nearly 20 years. She was inspired by former Silver Ferns coach Yvonne Willering, who was her coach for 13 years.
With a sharp eye for scouting talent and keen on player development, Araroa says she really loves William’s attitude and commitment.
“As a 14-year old girl she was getting in a car for three hours, going to training and performing for two, and then getting back in the car for another three hours,” she says. “You’ve got to admire someone who does that.
“She makes the job look easy, it’s never a chore. Her dream has been to get into the Magic team – and here she is. That’s why Khiarna says it’s so easy for her to make the trips and easy for her to switch on for training.”
This year has been a bit tougher for Williams, but she hasn’t complained about the arrangement. After training with the Magic team, initially as a training partner, she would wait for Araroa to finish with the Beko programme straight after.
“She would wait for me in the car and do her study. She’s that holistic athlete you dream of, ticking all the right boxes all of the time,” says Araroa. “I don’t know if I was that committed to my school-work.”
For Williams, the most enjoyable part about being involved in the Magic is the family environnment.
“We’re all really close and they were really helpful when I came in. I like that they still push me even though I’m the youngest. They still expect things of me which is good,” she says.
Coming into the professional Waikato Bay of Plenty environment, the person Williams looked up to was Magic legend Casey Kopua.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted to be like her because I used to be a defender,” says Williams. “When I got to Beko level and played against her, I was fan-girling the whole season. I couldn’t calm down.”
As a teammate, Kopua pushed others just as much as she did herself.
Now that Kopua has retired, defender Erena Mikaere has become “like a second mum” to Williams.
Debuting for the Magic last year was a special moment for the young athlete.
“I was nervous leading up to it, but when I got on it all went away. It definitely lived up to what I thought that moment was going to be,” says Williams.
A Silver Ferns black dress is most definitely a goal, but being known not only as a good player but a good person is up there too for Williams.
“I think if you’re a good person, people will want to be like you and aspire to be like you, because I know that’s something I do with netball,” she says.
Trying to secure an ANZ Premiership contract next year is the short-term goal and if given the opportunity, Williams would most likely move to Hamilton to be closer to the team.
“That’s what I’m working towards, but university is also on the table. I’m looking at studying psychology. My mum was a little bit shocked when I mentioned psychology but I quite like studying people’s behaviour,” says Williams.
“I’d like to go to the morning sessions with the girls and actually hang out with them too. That would make us closer and we could start asking more of each other at training because we’d have that connection.”
Williams is not short on support crew. She’s in her first year as a Tania Dalton Foundation recipient. The foundation was set up in memory of late Silver Fern Tania Dalton to help young women achieve in sport but ultimately give back to their communities.
“It’s been so cool meeting all of the girls. I never would’ve thought I would meet so many different people because we’re all from different sports. They’re really supportive as well and super helpful,” says Williams.
“After my game on Monday [against the Northern Stars] they arranged someone to pick me up so I could make the second day of a development workshop they were holding.”
As part of the three-year programme, Williams also receives a mentor – Silver Ferns assistant coach Debbie Fuller guides her in that department. Fuller has also mentored young rugby star Renee Holmes, who’s in her final year of the programme.
“Debbie’s been awesome. Over lockdown she would send me quotes and things and we’d have conversations,” she says.
Williams began playing netball at five, but didn’t take the sport seriously until she reached high school, where she started to make representative teams.
“A highlight was last season. I felt we had such a good Beko season and then debuting [for the Magic] was the biggest thing to come out of that,” says Williams, who was awarded the Waikato Bay of Plenty Beko ‘breakthrough player of the year’.
Before committing full-time to netball, Williams also played volleyball. Winning the nationals as a Year 10 student in the senior A team was another milestone.
Balancing netball with school has been made easier with the support of family.
“I’m really lucky my school is really supportive of my netball, so they’re cool with keeping me updated. And my mum also helps because she’s such an organised person,” says Williams.
A science enthusiast, Williams has kept biology as a subject this year, and her choice of statistics may come in handy when she’s analysing her own shooting performance.
For now, she has her eyes set on playing well for the Magic so she’s in a good position to make a case for doing away with the six-hour return trips three times a week.