As the Tactix go into their do-or-die netball league clash, loyal midcourter Charlotte Elley takes her West Coaster nana’s moxie with her.
When the churning waters of the one-in-100-year flood raged through her hometown of Westport, Charlotte Elley was reminded of what stoic, stubborn stock she comes from.
Elley may live in Christchurch now, but she’s a West Coaster through and through – proud of the fact she was brought up there, and that it’s still home to most of her family.
That includes her grandmother Rea – now in her mid-80s and Elley’s greatest fan and harshest critic.
When the red-alert storm hit Westport almost a fortnight ago and half the town’s population were evacuated as the banks of the Buller River burst, ‘Nana Rea’ dug her toes in.
“Nana didn’t want to leave, she couldn’t understand why she had to. She’s so stubborn, eh? A tough old nut,” Elley laughs.
“She ended up being evacuated three times, from every house she was moved to. It was quite a rigmarole.”
Elley’s parents were also evacuated from their home at Carter’s Beach and returned two days later to find it unscathed. Elley knows how lucky they and Nana Rae were – at least 400 houses have serious damage, at least 100 families can’t live in their homes. Her dad has been helping rip sodden carpet out of many of them.
There’s a touch of that stoicism in Elley’s netball game – her grit, patience and dependability have made the loyal Tactix player one of the best wing defences in the country.
In her sixth season with the Tactix, Elley rarely gets back to the West Coast during the netball season: “Especially in winter, you can’t trust the roads with snow and slips.”
But she’s in contact with Nana Rea at least twice a week. Every year, the Elley family give her a Sky Sport subscription so she can watch her grand-daughter play in the ANZ Premiership.
“I get a few phone calls before the game and she tells me what to do. And afterwards she’ll give me a rundown of the game,” Elley says.
“I doubt she ever played the game; she had seven kids. But she’s learned so much since I’ve been playing; she’s become quite analytical. She has a classic one-liner: ‘Go win’. I try to do that every time.” Elley laughs.
She’ll take that pearl of Nana’s wisdom into Sunday’s elimination final against the Steel in Invercargill; the winner goes into the grand final against the Mystics in Auckland the following weekend.
Elley, who’s been a rock in the side this season, acknowledges the Tactix have had a turbulent 2021 – the preseason favourites finished the 15 rounds in third.
“We came through the preseason firing and then had a lull, and now we’ve finally hit our straps. We’ve gelled and learned, and our combinations have grown,” says the 25-year-old. She and wing attack Erikana Pedersen are the longest-serving Tactix players.
Her own game has been lifted, Elley says, with the arrival of goal defence Karin Burger, the Silver Fern transferring from the Pulse this season. She’s running hot to collect the MVP of this year’s league, and her energy and commitment to stealing the ball has been infectious.
“She’s incredible. She thinks about everything and questions why,” Elley says. “She’s so bubbly and caring too.”
Netball may not know how close they were to losing Elley to another code.
At Buller High School, basketball was her top priority. She played in the school’s B netball team because she couldn’t go away in tournament week for both sports.
She was encouraged to go to the United States on a college basketball scholarship, but Elley didn’t want to leave home. “So I couldn’t see a future in basketball for me, but with netball I could,” she says.
“So I thought I might as well go and try my luck in the game.” She became a boarder at St Andrew’s College in Christchurch for her last two years of high school and was drafted into the Tactix wider squad while she was still in Year 12 – catching the eye of former Silver Fern coach, Leigh Gibbs.
She made the New Zealand Secondary Schools side in 2014, and was vice captain of the New Zealand U21 side who won the 2017 World Youth Cup in Botswana.
Not the tallest of players, Elley moved out of the defensive circle and found her place in the midcourt. She’s come to make the wing defence role her own in the Tactix defence.
“It’s a funny position, but I love it,” she says. “To be fair, I’d play any position just to be on the court. But if you’re at wing defence, you’ve got to own it.
“Last year we were light on numbers at training so Mits [Tactix coach Marianne Delaney-Hoshek] played wing D. She turned to me and said: ‘Charlotte, I hate this position. I get no ball, it’s no fun’,” Elley remembers.
“I was like ‘Marianne, I know. It’s a thankless role… and you’ve only been there for 10 minutes’.”
There’s no doubt Elley would like the chance to play for her country again, this time in the Silver Ferns.
“When I sit down with my athlete life advisor, I say ‘Yep I’d love to be there’. I know New Zealand A is a stepping-stone, and obviously I’d love to crack that,” she says.
“You’re always gutted when you don’t make it, but you come back and assess why not and you work on those things; try and be better each season.
“But you can only do what you can do. I put out my best performance each week, but I’m doing it for Tactix first and foremost and if anything comes of it, it’s a great by-product.”
Netball has taken a higher priority in Elley’s life this year. With a bachelor of commerce majoring in supply chain from Lincoln University, she works for meat company ANZCO Foods, one of New Zealand’s largest exporters.
“I love my job, but I seem to overcommit to work, have a burnout, then bounce back. So I made a conscious decision this year to only work 20 hours a week, because I really wanted to give my netball a crack, have the downtime and do the recovery,” she says.
She’s grateful her boyfriend, Canterbury Crusaders halfback Mitchell Drummond, understands her workload. “We can support each other. Our lives can get a bit hectic,” she laughs. “Though I have him on that I have to work two jobs and he only works one.”
Yet Elley wouldn’t have it any other way. “I go to work in my office wearing my heels and 10 minutes before, I was wearing sneakers and dripping with sweat,” she says. “It makes me switch off netball, which is good.”
She’s proud, too, that she’s got many of her workmates watching netball. “There are a lot of men in the meat industry, and they’re watching the game now. They hit me up with their advice as well,” she says. “It’s what we want – more people interested in the game.”
No matter the results over the next two weekends, Elley says she happy with where she’s at: “I love my life. Everything is falling in place for me.”
* The ANZ Premiership elimination final between the Tactix and the Steel is in Invercargill on Sunday at 4pm, live on Sky Sport 1.