Clinging precariously to the top spot on the Suncorp Super Netball ladder, the Sunshine Coast Lightning were eager to take the win against the Adelaide Thunderbirds in the final round of the 2019 season. The minor premiership has alluded the reigning titleholders in their two previous championship winning seasons and it was an honour they were keen to realise. Playing their last game for the season, the Thunderbirds arrived at the USC stadium with nothing to lose. Although out of finals contention, the Thunderbirds were hoping they would be the ones to rain on the Lightning’s parade.

The Sunshine Coast Lightning began the game with the centre pass, rocketing it down to their goal third, before coming to an abrupt halt with a determined intercept by goal defence Kate Shimmin. As the ball headed back down to the Thunderbirds third, it was contested strongly by Lightning wing defence Maddie McAuliffe over Adelaide’s wing attack Chelsea Pitman. The ball transitioning quickly back down to the Lightning’s goal, with goal shooter Peace Proscovia scoring under the post.

Early nerves saw uncharacteristic mistakes by both sides, but it was Thunderbirds goal attack Maria Folau whose experience helped steady the Adelaide ship with a couple of quick successful shots. With Lightning goal defence Karla Pretorius and goal keeper Phumza Maweni sticking tight, Folau shot from every part of the circle with her usual pinpoint accuracy, scoring 100% for the quarter. The Lightning followed with a couple of quick points, the score-line travelling goal for goal as both teams began to find their rhythm.

Maria Folau (Thunderbirds) goes for goal with Karla Pretorius (Lightning) defending. Image: Marcela Massey

A Pretorius intercept in the Thunderbirds goal third bought the ball quickly back down through the mid court, with Lightning wing attack Laura Scherian working hard to drive forward and make space. The Lightning were fluid in attack: a strong pass to centre Laura Langman in the pocket, who followed up with a dizzying back and forth feed to goal attack Steph Wood, allowing Wood to better position herself to score near the post. The solid understanding and trust between the Lightning captain and her goal attack is obvious.

Shooting 83.3% for the quarter, Lightning goal shooter Peace Proscovia struggled early against the Thunderbirds superstar goal keeper Shamera Sterling. Sterling took five intercepts for the game, including three in the first quarter. Proscovia’s style of play of remaining mostly grounded but constantly re-positioning her body to better take the high pass was just the type of play that enables Sterling to shine. Her incredible reach allows her to seemingly pluck the high balls away from their intended target. Proscovia was soon subbed off and replaced with the in-form Cara Koenen. Koenen’s style of play differs significantly to Proscovia’s. Koenen moves continuously in and out of the circle and around the goal third, making it harder for Sterling to defend.

Shamera Sterling was a menace in defence. Image: Marcela Massey

The Lightning continued to apply tight defence, forcing Adelaide at one point to pass dangerously from their own goal third back down court into the Lightning’s goal third. Adelaide centre, Hannah Petty had a strong first quarter with eight feeds and seven goal assists and held her own against Langman. Although the Lightning’s defence was tight, it was the Thunderbirds’ ability to capitalise on their opportunities in their circle which saw them forge ahead. Both Folau and goal shooter Cody Lange shot a gritty 100% for the quarter to spearhead Adelaide into the first break 15-11.

It was the Thunderbirds who began the second quarter with the centre pass, following a held ball by a dismayed Langman in the centre right on the whistle for the end of the first quarter. As the passage of play made its way into Adelaide’s goal, Pretorius and Maweni worked relentlessly in defence to force the ball out of court. Lange struggled to make space for herself and get under the post to shoot cleanly, allowing the Lightning to come away with a much-needed rebound. But again, it was Shimmin who, with a determined deflection away from Koenen, halted the Lightning runaway express as it hurtled towards their goal end. The ball went back up court towards the Thunderbirds goal end and into the safe hands of Folau who capitalised, taking the Thunderbirds to a five-point lead. Folau was on song, shooting again at 100% accuracy for the quarter.

Langman had a scorching second quarter, beginning with an early intercept off the Thunderbirds centre pass. Reading the play well, and doggedly defending every ball, Langman worked tirelessly leading her team by example as they began to turn the score around.

Maddie McAuliffe (Lightning) and Shadine van der Merwe (Thunderbirds). Image: Marcela Massey.

Sterling had her work cut out for her with the mobile Koenen, who when going towards the ball, quickly changes direction, leaving Sterling all alone. Well supported along circle edge by Scherian and Langman, Koenen and Wood have developed a strong understanding of each other’s play and worked hard to reign in the score-line.

With eight turnovers by each side for the quarter, it was the Lightning who showed more consistency this quarter to capitalise – with Koenen and Wood both shooting an impressive 100% accuracy for the quarter. Lightning went into half-time winning the quarter 13-7 and seizing a match-needed bonus point.

Returning from the break, the third quarter saw the Lightning tighten their punishing defence, which soon led to a held ball by Folau in the Thunderbirds goal third. Lightning quickly transitioned back-down court, passing around their goal third, giving time for their circle to open up and for Koenen to safely take the pass under the post. The shot missed, her first for the game, but was quickly rebounded by the shooter who successfully capitalised.

The Lightning shooting circle. Image: Marcela Massey

Shadine Van Der Merwe replaced Shimmin at goal defence and fought hard to limit Wood, but she was no match for the Diamonds goal attack who maintained her energy and accuracy, shooting another 100% for the quarter. Wood finished the game with 16 goal assists, 18 feeds, 19 centre passes and shooting 88%.

The young Thunderbirds attack end of centre Kelly Altmann, Petty in wing attack and goal shooter Charlee Hodges worked valiantly to impede the Lightning onslaught. But the Thunderbirds missed the steady leadership and experience of their benched captain Pitman and her connection with Folau to get the ball successfully back down through the mid-court and safely into the circle. With Pretorius hunting around Adelaide’s circle edge, her uncanny ability to anticipate the play saw her secure three intercepts for the quarter, and six for the game. Along with Maweni, the goal defenders challenged the Thunderbirds who struggled to capitalise when they did have possession in the circle, with Folau shooting an uncharacteristic 77.8% for the quarter and Hodges on 33.3%.

The Thunderbirds defence held on bravely, forcing a Scherian held ball, but were unable to move the ball out of the Lightning’s goal third. Patient to work the ball around waiting for space to open up, the well-timed high-speed passing throughout the goal third and along the circle edge by Langman, Scherian, Wood and Koenen demonstrates the solid understanding between the Lightning attacking players. Although Scherian was involved with nine turnovers for the game, she laboured hard to produce an outstanding 29 feeds, 14 goal assists and 19 centre passes for the game. The Lightning took the third quarter 18-8 and another bonus point.

Drawing a loud gasp of shock from the Sunshine Coast crowd, a deflection by Maweni in the opening minutes of the final quarter, saw her stumble and take a heavy fall. She was quickly back on her feet, much to the relief of the packed USC stadium and her team mates.

Phumza Maweni (Lightning) puts pressure on the shot. Image: Marcela Massey

Although trailing by 12 points, the Thunderbirds never gave up. The Thunderbirds defensive end of Sterling, Shimmin and Van Der Merwe continued to apply tight, ball-hungry defence and laboured to get the ball away from the Lightning goal, but their attack end struggled to capitalise on their hard work. Sterling managed a solid outing with five intercepts, seven gains and nine deflections with no gain.

Thunderbirds shooter Cody Lange moving in and out of the circle, opened up space for Folau. However, a quick unexpected handoff from the champion goal attack to a surprised Lange (and what might have been a certain goal from the experienced Folau) rocketed out of court.

With five minutes left on the clock and to the delight of the home crowd, young Lightning goal keeper Annika Lee-Jones made a rare appearance, replacing Maweni at goal keeper. With the game safely in the bag for the Lightning, it was invaluable experience for this young gun. The last quarter also saw the re-appearance of Proscovia. With Wood benched, Koenen moved into goal attack. She finished the game top-scoring with an impressive 94% accuracy.

Annika Lee-Jones (Lightning) took to the court in the final quarter. Image: Marcela Massey

The Sunshine Coast Lightning won the final quarter and the game 58-37. But more importantly–for the first time in the club’s short, but very successful history–they secured the minor premiership. Finishing on top of the ladder will see the Lightning host the first semi-final next weekend against second place NSW Swifts. Regardless of where your loyalties lie, this will be a game not to be missed. After Lightning coach Noeline Taurua’s announcement during the week that she will not be returning as coach next season, the Sunshine Coast Lightning will want to send her out with a perfect 3/3 premiership wins.

 

Sunshine Coast Lightning 58 def Adelaide Thunderbirds 37

(11-15, 13-7, 18-8, 16-7)

 

Player of the Match: Steph Wood (Sunshine Coast Lightning)

Crowd: 3059 at USC Stadium

 

Sunshine Coast Lightning

Cara Koenen 30/32 – 94%

Steph Wood 22/25 – 88%

Peace Proscovia 6/8 %- 75%

58/65 – 89.2%

 

Adelaide Thunderbirds

Cody Lange 3/8 – 37.5%

Maria Folau 33/39 – 85%

Charlee Hodges 1/3 – 33.3%

37/50 – 74%

 

Key Stats

Intercepts:

Karla Pretorius (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 6

Shamera Sterling (Adelaide Thunderbirds) – 5

 

Goal Assists:

Steph Woods (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 16

Laura Scherian (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 14

Hannah Petty (Adelaide Thunderbirds) -14

Feeds

Laura Scherian (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 29

Laura Langman (Sunshine Coast Lightning) – 28

Hannah Petty (Adelaide Thunderbirds) – 27

 

Line ups

Sunshine Coast Lightning

GS Peace Proscovia

GA Stephanie Wood

WA Laura Scherian

C Laura Langman

WD Maddie McAuliffe

GD Karla Pretorius

GK Phumza Maweni

Bench: Jacqui Russell, Cara Koenen, Annika Lee-Jones

Changes:

(Q1) GS Cara Koenen,

(Q4) C Madeline McAuliffe, WD Jacqui Russell, GK Annika Lee-Jones, GS Peace Proscovia, GA Cara Koenen,

 

Adelaide Thunderbirds

GS Cody Lange

GA Maria Folau

WA Chelsea Pitman

C Hannah Petty

WD Shadine Van Der Merwe

GD Kate Shimmin

GK Shamera Sterling

Bench: Kelly Altmann, Charlee Hodges, Maisie Nankivell

Changes:

(Q1) WD Maisie Nankivell

(Q2) C Kelly Altmann, GD Shadine Van Der Merwe, WA Hannah Petty,

(Q3) GS Charlee Hodges, WA Chelsea Pitman, WA Hannah Petty,

(Q4) GD Kate Shimmin, GS Cody Lange, C Maisie Nankivell, WD Shadine Van Der Merwe

 

What they said

Noeline Taurua

What were your thoughts on tonight’s game?

“I thought the first quarter was a bit unsettled and I thought Shamera did a good job in that end circle and coughed up a bit of ball – I think we had eight turnovers in that first quarter. It was similar to what last week was like in that first half, where we had quite a lot of ball in our defence end, and wasn’t able to secure it, and after half time we sort of came to play.

“But the score line probably, what’s the word, it probably didn’t come out until the third quarter, I think…but hey, we got the job done and we were able to get the points. So, for us to go into minor premiers, that’s pretty cool for us.”

How important is getting that home semi for you?

“It had been something we had been talking about and something we haven’t been able to do the last couple of years, so it’s a bonus. I think for us to be able to do it, not only for ourselves, but also for our community, is something that we do talk about and know the value of what it means to be here and play here, so I’m really happy about that.”

So, how is Lightning going to improve upon those slow starts?

“Yes, we’ve spoken about it for the last two or three weeks and it has been something we’ve identified, and I don’t feel we’re too far, what I call, cracking it open. But there are little things that are pulling us back in and we get ourselves under pressure. In saying that, not disrespecting the opposition as well, because they did come out really well. And once again, when Maria (Folau) has ball in hand they were able to put the ball through the hoop. So, whether that’s just something we need to weather the storm, I’m unsure, but I do believe there are errors that we can eliminate or just getting those shots put through the hoop.”

What did you learn from the last time you played the Swifts, obviously a semi final sends it up another notch?

“Yes, it does. All those past games become null and void, and it’s always the case. I really like the Swifts and how they play. It’s been really interesting over the last couple of weeks, they’ve made a lot of changes in their starting seven. I don’t know whether they’ve wanted to do that or not, but the changes have been quite rife.

“So, it will be interesting if that’s unsettled them so to speak. But I love their general style in their game play. They’re really secure with the ball and their possession. We know defensively we’re getting ball, but we must be able to take into the other end and put it through the hoop.”

It must be a big incentive to win that first week and host the grand final?

Yes. We’re just going to go for it basically and give it a good nudge. The opportunity knowing we do have two games under our belt is definitely a bonus, but as far as I’m concerned we’re going to go for it was much as possible and see if we can get right through.

 

Laura Langman

How was it watching the last quarter from the bench?

“It was very nice, a very nice view. It was so fantastic getting everybody out there, just to reward everyone for their hard work for the last game and for the season, which was fantastic. It was pleasant viewing.”

Did you feel like you needed a rest?

“Oh mate, trust me, in this league no-one wants a rest! You always want to be putting your hand up for a spot. I think, for me, it was so fantastic we could get everybody out there, because the effort that goes on behind the scenes, and the time is massive. So, to just be able to reward is special.”

And how good is it coming back next week for another home game?

“Well, it’s pretty cool. I think Lightning has nearly experienced every spot on the ladder, so to finish on the top and to have a home semi is very, very exciting! Another first for the club and it’s a biggie!”

Another slow start this week. How can you improve on that for next week?

“Well, off the top of my head, first and foremost we’ll go back and look at the warm up. Do we have enough stimulus there, maybe? I think we have to give credit to the opposition. The Thunderbirds came out of the blocks really well – and Maria, she’s amazing. She was getting it outside and just putting it through (the goal).

“Our ability to create pressure and to create opportunities to get ball in that first quarter – we couldn’t get into our work as quick as we would’ve liked to. For me, I think I’ll look at the warm up because maybe we’ve been going too long on the same ‘recipe’.”

What are your thoughts on Noeline’s announcement this week that she is stepping down at the end of this season?

“Oh man! How long do you have? I’m a massive fan. Her ability to read the game, her strategy up against opposition is second to none. I think there’s not a player or a person in the organisation that hasn’t been impacted by her and her ability to grow people is, honestly, remarkable. New Zealand is very, very lucky to call her a kiwi and to have her as our national coach. I’m so excited for what’s coming up next for the kiwis.”

Could tonight have been your last head-to-head with Maria Folau?

“Look, it might’ve been. Who knows? I think both of us just want to make sure we love every moment because when you get to this side of your career, you’re never quite sure. But it was special, and I love watching her in action – she just makes it rain in. I got to play a world cup with her and win a gold with her along the way. It’s been a very special year.”

You’ve been through a lot together?

“Oh yes, we’ve weathered some storms!”

What are some of the traps of going into the final series as top team?

“I always think, you’ve just got to get into the top four and essentially, it’s anyone’s ball game. Finishing top spot is nice, but I always get a little bit nervous. Essentially, we’re playing for our life every week now. Even though finishing one or two, you get that option of getting a second life. You certainly don’t take it for granted. We’re going to take a look at those starts for sure, but it’s anyone’s ball game. There are some teams that are gaining some wicked momentum, so it’s anyone’s ball game really. It doesn’t matter where you finish (on the ladder).”

How do communicate to those lesser experienced players to play like your life depends on it?

“I think we’re lucky at Lightning, we don’t have a lot of inexperience. Peace and Phumza have been on the international scene for quite a while, so they know how to play in big games. I think we’re lucky, in terms that we’ve got finals experience. It’s probably being able to draw on that and ensure that we squeeze as much out of our on-court sessions this week.”

What do you think will be the Swift’s biggest weapon?

“I think their ability to get ball and hang to ball has been phenomenal and very consistent throughout the whole season. I think their mid-court connection with Sam (Wallace) and Helen (Housby) has been really nice. I think their versatility is a real strength for them. Even when they didn’t have Helen, Sophie (Garbin) really stood up for them and they also have that option of putting Nat (Haythornthwaite) in there too. So, versatility – and that’s not talking about their back three that they can change around. They’ve got lots of cards to draw from and I guess, it’s not getting caught up in trying to prepare for every line they could put out there. It’s to ensure we don’t get distracted by that and just look at ourselves.”