The Sunshine Coast Lightning bat deep in the defensive end. (Images: Sunshine Coast Lightning/Will Cuckson)

With a sharp decline in average age and a replacement player needed for new recruit Tara Hinchliffe, the 2021 Signing Period still leaves questions unanswered on the Sunshine Coast.

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The Sunshine Coast Lightning will boast one of the most different looking squads coming into the 2022 season, with four changes to the team that made finals this year.

They’ll lose some of the most experience of any team, with the departures making up an average age of 29.5. Meanwhile, the additions coming in are an average of just 21.75 years old.

While the starting seven is strong, with a Diamond-studded goal circle and rock solid defensive group, the youth movement could see the Lightning exposed against the veterans of the competition.

Coach Kylee Byrne enjoyed a fairly consistent use of her bench players in 2021, averaging a typically constant 10.92 substitutions. Interestingly though, in the games where she used the least substitutions (four and six) was in the four goal and one goal victory over fellow top four sides West Coast Fever and Giants Netball respectively.

She’ll need to adjust to going from international talent to developing teenage prospects cycling through as depth options on game day.

The Inner Sanctum takes a look at the Sunshine Coast Lightning’s 2022 signings.

Cara Koenen
Kate Shimmin
Steph Wood
Mahalia Cassidy
Laura Scherian
Karla Pretorius
Tara Hinchliffe (Firebirds)
Kadie-Ann Dehaney (Vixens)
Reilley Batcheldor (Firebirds)
Annie Miller (Giants)
Peace Proscovia (Surrey)
Ashlee Unie
Madeline McAuliffe
Phumza Maweni

Biggest Signing: Tara Hinchliffe

Some may argue that Dehaney is the bigger addition to the Lightning for 2022. The Sunshine Girl has represented Jamaica since 2015, and has been a hugely impactful circle defender off the bench for the Melbourne Vixens since 2017.

However, Hinchliffe’s potential is limitless. She was trusted as a starting defender for the Queensland Firebirds as a teenager, learning under the tutelage of Laura Clemesha and the legendary Laura Geitz.

Hinchliffe became a staple of the team in that debut year, playing 12 games for 32 deflections, 18 intercepts and 12 rebounds. After Geitz retired, Hinchliffe only continued her development.

She continued to lift in her key defensive stats year on year, playing 39 games in three seasons. Hinchliffe would then play 10 games in 2021 before an ACL injury cruelly struck her down.

Without another defensive rotation, the Firebirds visibly struggled. They put up two of their worst scores of the season to the West Coast Fever and Collingwood Magpies in back-to-back games, showing just how important Hinchliffe had become to their defensive structure.

Both a strong and agile defender, Hinchliffe is an elite reader of the play. She’s incredibly capable both playing off her opponent and taking intercepts, as well as holding under the post and either deflecting the ball out of play or to the advantage of a teammate.

The only knock on Hinchliffe’s addition is that she’s likely to miss the majority of the 2022 season with the ACL. Until that time, the international pairing of Dehaney and Karla Pretorius will be more than enough to pick up the slack.

Currently named in the Australian Development Squad and a touring member with the Diamonds 2021 Constellation Cup side earlier this year, Hinchliffe will continue to make her case as a international level defender once she completes her recovery fully.

Biggest Departure: Maddy McAuliffe

The Lightning announced in mid-September that foundation player Maddy McAuliffe wouldn’t be returning for the 2022 season.

The 26-year-old is stepping away from netball to focus on career opportunities in law, saying she had to make the choice between the two. She played 75 games for the club, including playing in the back-to-back 2017 and 2018 championships.

A popular figure on the Sunshine Coast, McAuliffe won’t just leave a hole off-field, but on-field too.

Her loss leaves the Lightning without a specialist wing defence in their current squad, with Kate Shimmin the likely candidate to take over the role.

Giants training partner Annie Miller joins as a midcourt rotation, but has played in primarily offensive roles in her career so far.

Dehaney could push into wing defence, letting Shimmin play more naturally to her strengths in the circle while giving Dehaney more license to utilise her explosiveness. Karla Pretorius can play wing defence, but given her selection in the SSN Team of the Year as a goal defence for three years straight, it may be a case of not trying to fix what isn’t broken.

It remains to be seen who Bryne will elevate into the squad in Hinchliffe and McAuliffe’s absence, but a specialist wing defence would help to ensure the great attacking midcourters of the competition remain in check.

Projected Starting Seven

Dehaney is named as starting goalkeeper purely out of necessity with Hinchliffe’s injury – with a fully fit squad, she’d be starting while Dehaney would be on the bench.

Hinchliffe will be replaced in this side by a replacement training partner, whether that be a wing defence or defensive option. Sister Maddie is a defensive midcourter, and was a Lightning training partner in 2021.

Pretorius adds incredible experience into the defensive end as always. Alongside Dehaney, they could become one of the strongest intercept duos in the league.

Shimmin’s selection in wing defence is also somewhat makeshift. She played the role at times last season, but the departure of Maddy McAuliffe leaves the position one that she’ll be forced into for more time outside of her preferred circle defending role.

With three attacking midcourters in Mahalia Cassidy, Laura Scherian, youngster Annie Miller and goal attack Steph Wood, Byrne will have a strong group to work with after the centre pass.

Cassidy and Scherian make for an aggressive and pacey starting midcourt. With the reliability of Wood and Koenen both at long range and under the post, expect the Lightning to score well in 2022.

Miller was scouted specifically for her pace as well, while Batcheldor could play a high goal attack role to take advantage of her famed ‘long bombs’.

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Shooting Group

New addition Reilley Batcheldor makes for the perfect protege for experienced Diamond Steph Wood, sharing very similar skillsets.

The youngster affectionately known as ‘Roo’ had the perfect platform to show off her long range shooting in the Sapphire Series. Alongside Wood, she should be a nightmare for defenders in the Power Five.

Wood had her injury issues across the end of 2021, but showed off how her role may change late in her career. With Peace Proscovia as a shooting rotation, she spent more time in wing attack than ever.

It led to her shooting less than last season, finishing with 27 less goals and 28 less Super Shots. To give Batcheldor more time on court with her guidance to help, she could see a similar switching up the court in 2022.

Koenen, meanwhile, has come leaps and bounds since she was named in the Diamonds development squad in 2019. Making her national debut in the 2021 Constellation Cup, she has developed into one of Australia’s best shooters.

She finished sixth in the league for goals in 2021 with 517, the highest of any Australian shooter. Koenen’s game under the post has become one of the highlights of her game, amassing 75 offensive rebounds across the past two seasons and finishing fourth overall for the stat in 2021.

Byrne will need to figure out the best mix of the three coming into 2022, but she has some strong tools at her disposal.

Midcourt Group

The Lightning midcourt group is all but set for attacking players. Pace, pace and more pace makes up an overpowering squad forward of the centre circle.

Mahalia Cassidy was firmly entrenched in centre across 2021 after making the switch from the Firebirds. Her assists fell from to 266 to 150 with one extra game, but her defensive statistics took a marked upturn.

Cassidy had 19 deflections and 13 intercepts, using her pace and incredible stamina to work tirelessly across the court to help out her defenders at the drop of a hat.

Cassidy stays on the Sunshine Coast - Suncorp Super Netball
Mahalia Cassidy increased her defensive output in 2021. (Photo: Suncorp Super Netball)

Laura Scherian took slightly fewer centre pass receives, but her feeds into the circle with assists went up by 30. Her short, sharp circle feeds were key both in regulation time and the Power Five.

If Cassidy consistently worked down the court, Scherian did so in the other direction. With that said, she was still second in the league for centre pass receives in 2021 barely behind the Giants’ Maddie Hay.

Annie Miller is another player with pace to burn. While only having extremely limited opportunity at SSN level so far, she suits the Lightning’s game style to a tee.

As mentioned earlier, Pretorius and Wood could also push up onto the wings at times if required. Wood is spending more time in WA as her career advances, and could do so to give Batcheldor time in the circle alongside Koenen.

Defensive Group

There are not many defensive groups more daunting to come up against in 2022 than the Lightning’s.

We’ve paid them their dues comprehensively so far, but the additions of Dehaney and Hinchliffe make for a dynamic combination that will constantly leave opposition shooters on their toes.

Hinchliffe can match up against both stronger holding players and more agile shooters, giving space to her fellow defender. She can freely switch between either to throw off set feeding plays into the circle, particularly advantageous if she’s stationed at goal keeper.

This gives freedom to Pretorius in particular, who ranked fifth highest for intercepts in 2021 with 33. Hinchliffe and Dehaney managed 39 between them, and one can only assume those numbers will go up in 2022.

Once Hinchliffe is fully healthy, this gives the Lightning four top level defensive options in the back third. Not many other sides can claim this level of flexibility.

Throw Shimmin into the mix, and the possibilities are endless. Wing defence may be the casualty out of all of this, but the Lightning could cover the position with one of the defenders there to help strengthen both ends.

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