21/04/2024

Sunshine Coast Lightning shooter Cara Koenen (Picture: Sunshine Coast Lightning/Twitter, Design by Madeline Irwin)

With a myriad of changes to the squad coming at the Sunshine Coast Lightning, the team expects a better year after a wooden spoon finish in 2022. Finishing with four wins for the season, they look for more consistency under new head coach Belinda Reynolds.

After a tulmultous 2022 season, the Sunshine Coast Lightning are eager to get back to their premiership winning ways. The winds of change swept through the club early in the off-season, when the Lightning parted ways with Head Coach Kylee Byrne and installed former West Coast Fever assistant Belinda Reynolds.

Along with the change in Head Coach, Jenny Brazel was brought in as an Assistant Coach. She has recently headed up the USC Thunder Sapphires team and the Lightning ANC team as an Assistant Coach.

As one of the more experienced players at the club, star shooter Cara Koenen has seen the past success of the club and is well-positioned to see where improvement can come from this season.

Koenen spoke exclusively to The Inner Sanctum about the off-season changes and what supporters should expect from the Lightning in 2023.

“An interesting stat that I heard weeks ago was that we were actually the wooden spoon team to win the most games. I think goes to show how competitive the competition was [last season] and we were definitely able to get some really good wins on the board,” Koenen told The Inner Sanctum.

“It was just the consistency that we lacked, so I think that’s [a] promising sign for us. It gives us a real focus heading into this year as well, [we’ve identified] that we had some amazing performances but we also had some really disappointing ones where we weren’t able to kind of hang our hat on our brand of netball.

“We have brought a few younger players in who have brought a really good energy and bring something really, really different to the team that we’ve got.

“We’ve [had] to bring in quite a few replacement players, poor Belinda has been hard at work doing her research since she came into that head coach role. I think it has galvanised the group that we’ve got and I don’t think that that’s going to stop us heading into this year and ultimately that goal of aiming for that premiership.”

With the Lightning’s Round One game against Giants Netball on Sunday kicking off Reynolds’ head coaching career in the SSN, Koenen described the feeling around the group.

“I’m still very excited about the group that we’ve got this year,” she said.

“Obviously [we’ve got] Belinda coming in now and she’s been incredible thus far, [I] can’t wait to see what she does with Jenny [Brazel] by her side. I think there’s a really good vibe and a really good energy about the group and I can’t wait to see the brand of netball that we put out.”

One of the biggest stories coming out of the 2022 Australian Netball Championships was the ACL injury suffered by rising star Reilley Batcheldor. In what would have been her second year on a full-contract at the Lightning, Batcheldor might still take to the court in the latter half of the tournament.

Koenen gave an update on how she has seen Batcheldor’s progress in rehabilitating her knee.

“[It’s] really, really, heartbreaking for Roo (Batcheldor) for her to do a second knee,” Koenen said.

“I think it’s a position that no-one wants to be in or see their mates go through, but she’s one of the hardest workers that I know and she has been so diligent with her rehab that I have no doubt in my mind that she is going to come back bigger and better and stronger.”

The Sunshine Coast Lightning have added Reilley Batcheldor to its 2022 team. (@sc_lightning – Twitter)

Taking Batcheldor’s place in the squad as a temporary injury replacement position is young shooter Charlie Bell. She was a training partner with the Queensland Firebirds last year, who was also signed for this season before being called up for the temporary contract with the Lightning.

Bursting onto the scene at SSN level through the pre-season, there is a lot to like about Bell. As someone who’s gone through the Queensland netball pathway as a shooter, Koenen described how she has seen Bell’s development and how Bell has ’embraced the opportunity’.

“She’s been working really hard on owning that circle and making sure that she’s nailing that holding game and trying to learn as much as she can. I think that the biggest thing about ‘Char’ is that she is really eager to learn,” she said.

“She actually does remind us all a lot of Caitlin Bassett, just in terms of her mannerisms, not even on court, just off-court. She is quite the character.

“She gives us a lot more versatility in the circle in that she’s a really tall, holding strong shooter at the back, whereas Steph and I obviously try and get a bit more of a moving circle happening. I think it’s [a strategy] for us to throw out against defences when they think they’ve figured us out.

“I think that makes us hard to scout for which is really good, I’m excited to see what she brings for the rest of the year.”

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With the injection of some exciting talent at the Lightning the last two years, it was worth finding out who the fans should watch this year and what her younger teammates will bring on court.

Koenen picked out one of the best up-and-coming mid-courters in Annie Miller, who has turned heads through only one full SSN season after crossing over from Giants Netball.

“Honestly I think your eyes should be on Annie Miller this year,” Koenen explained.

“I’ve been so impressed by the work that she’s been doing this pre-season, she’s come into her own [and] I think she’s got speed to burn.

“[Then there’s some of] the younger girls we’ve got in Ash Ervin and Charlie Bell. I think that with Belinda stepping in I feel like the ‘older girls’, the ‘old crew’ have kind of been a bit revitalised, she’s got us being comfortable being uncomfortable and [has been] challenging us in new and exciting ways.”

One player that Lightning supporters have waited to see back in the league for the first time since 2021, is star international defender Karla Pretorius. Making her international return in the Quad Series for South Africa, Pretorius is primed for another SSN campaign with baby Kara joining her in Australia.

Koenen spoke highly of Pretorius, not only of her efforts on the court, but in motherhood as well.

“[This season we’ve got] the return of our mumma bear Karla with her bub, [which is] really, really exciting,” she said.

“She’s doing an amazing job of balancing motherhood and obviously full-time netball. She has for the last couple of weeks been doing it by herself without her [husband] here, I think her mum is coming over in the next couple of weeks.

“She’s been incredible but she’s also been playing some fantastic netball and as one of the best goal defenders in the world, I hate training against her. I definitely feel like she will be one to watch in terms of winning us some ball back this year.”

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