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​New look Southern Blast backed by experienced head

There will be a familiar face amongst a new-look Southern Blast as Lauren Piebenga returns to the Beko Netball League fold.

Her newly named ‘Southern Blast’ side will be in action in Auckland on Saturday when the 2019 Beko Netball League whistles signal the start of the fourth year of New Zealand’s developmental competition.

They take on hosts the Northern Marvels at The Trusts Arena while defending champions Central Manawa take on the Northern Comets, and Hellers Mainland travel to Rotorua on Sunday to play Waikato-BOP.

There will be plenty of motivation for the southern side as they acknowledge the passing of last year’s coach and southern netballing identity Georgie Salter, who died in November.

“She was such an inspiration and so committed to netball that she is a big loss to our netball community,” Piebenga said. “Georgie will definitely be in the back of the minds of a lot of our players this season.”

Their limited time together ahead of Saturday’s campaign opener will also be on the mind of Piebenga, but the new coach is pleased with the make-up of her squad and excited about watching those players develop over the 12-week league.

“This is really about the growth of players and giving them the skills to make that next step and an easy transition into the semi-pro environment,” she said.

Piebenga has had a good insight into both the amateur and semi-professional competitions in New Zealand having been involved at each level.

She was at the helm when South won the inaugural Beko Netball League title in 2016. She went on to be named national coach of the year at the Netball New Zealand Awards before stepping into the role as the Ascot Park Hotel Southern Steel’s assistant coach, where she has been for the past two seasons.

But the lure of being a head coach again was too much for Piebenga, along with the desire to focus on her home life, and she put her hand up for the Beko Netball League role with the Southern Blast.

“I really like the challenges that come with being the head coach and being able to put my own flavor on a team again,” she said.

“I’ve learnt so much over the past two years with the Steel but am looking forward to the challenges that come with developing players through the Beko Netball League.”

With the draw just being one-and-a-half rounds this season it will be important for teams to find their feet early, but Piebenga is wary that she may already have limited use of some of her key players this season.

Both Taneisha Fifita (defence) and Georgia Heffernan (attack) have appeared in the opening round of the ANZ Premiership and made an impact for the Southern Steel.

“They’ve done really well,” Piebenga said. “My heart is in two places really because it’s pleasing to see those players make that step up into the Steel but they are also part of our Southern Blast.”

The Beko Netball League Grand Final will be played in Christchurch at Horncastle Arena on May 19.