The shock off-season decision of Laura Langman to take time away from netball and withdraw from the Sunshine Coast Lightning has certainly made their task of winning back-to-back Super Netball titles more difficult.
Langman’s experience was a major factor in 2017 and now they have to press on without her. But the defending premiers should not be underestimated. Any team which can boast players of the calibre of Geva Mentor and Caitlin Bassett is still very much in the hunt.
Mentor can justifiably be regarded as the best netballer in the world right now. It has been an incredible 15 months for the England defender, who goes from one accolade to another. Lightning will be hoping their captain simply continues on from where she left off at the Commonwealth Games, where she was again one of the players of the tournament.
Mentor’s defence is relentless. Without pushing the boundaries of physicality, she is able to wear opposition shooters down and, more often than not, come out on top. She was the Super Netball player of the year last season, when she forged a successful partnership with South African Karla Pretorius (nee Mostert).
One of the features of Pretorius’s game is her sharp reflexes, which were on display when she picked up a crucial late intercept in last season’s thrilling major semi-final win against Vixens. She was then a much deserved player of the match in the Grand Final two weeks later.
With a vacancy at wing defence this season, it’s possible we could even see Pretorius pushed out to fill that gap, allowing tall Kiwi defender Erena Mikaere to receive more court time.
Prolific shooter Caitlin Bassett who’ll once again be the focal point. The Australian captain will want to get straight back to business after the disappointment of the Gold Coast. It’s fair to say her play was not always up to her usual high standard there, but it will be a surprise if she isn’t soon dominating Super Netball as she did last year.
She will be joined again by Diamonds teammate Steph Wood, who is one of the smartest goal attacks around. That combination gained in confidence the longer the season went on, with their performance in the Grand Final nothing short of clinical. Cara Koenen is the third shooter in the team and filled in well in the earlier rounds last year when Wood was unavailable.
As good as they are at either end of the court, ultimate success for the Lightning will depend largely on their unheralded midcourt. Laura Scherian and Kelsey Browne were signed after being unwanted or underused elsewhere. They were considered by many to be the weak links of the team – the reason Lightning couldn’t win.
How wrong that proved to be. Both Scherian and Browne went about their tasks with little fanfare, getting the job done week after week. It was the same story with youngster Madi McAuliffe, when she was given the opportunity early in the season.
All three players no doubt gained great confidence and learned a lot from playing with Langman. Without her guidance, they’ll now have to go to another level again.
The last midcourt spot in the team has gone to another unfashionable player in Jacqui Russell. Like Scherian, Russell is back from the netball wilderness, given a second chance at the elite level after previously playing for the Queensland Firebirds several seasons ago.
So the question is can Sunshine Coast Lightning retain their title? Unlike last season, they’ll now be the hunted. Everyone wants to beat the champions, so they’ll be challenged and will have to lift.
The loss of Langman is a big one, but with the playing list that Lightning still has, why can’t they go back to back?
2018 team list
Geva Mentor (c) GK
Caitlin Bassett (vc) GS
Kelsey Browne WA/C
Cara Koenen GS/GA
Erena Mikaere GK/GD
Madeline McAuliffe WD
Karla Pretorius (nee Mostert) GD/WD
Jacqui Russell WD/C
Laura Scherian C/WA
Stephanie Wood GA/WA
Head coach: Noeline Taurua
Assistant coach: Kylee Byrne
Training partners: Binnian Hunt, Steph O’Brien, Emma Tickner
Cover image: Marcela Massey