After a year in the wilderness, the Nelson Sparks have returned to the court for the 2018 season.
The women’s basketball team enjoyed recent success, having won the national title in 2012 and finishing third in 2015, but were unable to field a team in 2017.
“It’s taken a village to get the team back,” says Sparks player and administrator Frances Tilly.
Frances says the future of the franchise relied on a resurgence in 2018.
“If you let it go for two years, it’s nearly impossible to resurrect.”
The Sparks new era was officially started as they competed at the national Women’s Basketball Championship in Tauranga earlier this month.
“A lot of the teams there said it was great to see us back, which was really rewarding,” Frances says.
The side started the tournament with a decisive win over Rotorua.
“Everyone got a lot of court time and our junior players really stepped up which was fantastic to see.”
Following their opening win, the Sparks then went down with North Canterbury in an incredibly physical battle.
“The score didn’t reflect the game, it just blew out at the end, but it was a really good test against a quality side.”
The team then finished the tournament with a comfortable win over Northland.
“We beat them by thirty or so, which was a nice way to finish the tournament. ”
Frances says they were satisfied with the 2-1 result in their return to the top league.
“We go to these tournaments wanting to win, but with a young team I think there are some real positives.”
Frances says the squad features five veterans and five of the region’s best up and comers.
“Our players range from 17-year-olds to late twenties.”
The team is managed by Joanne Mumm and former Tall Black Phill Jones.
“We are in good hands.”
The side boast a wealth of talent including former Tall Fern and Sparks guard Jelena Vucinic, who played college basketball at Louisiana Tech.
“She is a phenomenal scorer,” says Frances.
Jody Hikuroa-Jefferey, who played for the New Zealand select team in 2016, is described by Frances as one of the best point guards in the league.
Veteran Kat Jones, wife of coach Phill, will captain the side. “Kat’s work rate is as high as it’s ever been.”
Adding height to the ranks is former Welsh international netballer Rebecca James.
Frances, in her third season with Sparks having previously played for Otago, is also a former New Zealand handball representative player
Rounding out the squad are young guns Hannah Crabtree, Olivia Daniel, Kate Dohmen and Samantha Jenkins. “They have really stepped up to the level, Olivia Daniel’s first shot was a corner three pointer, that takes a lot of guts.”
Frances says the young players have all the skills, they just need some time to adjust to the physicality and pace of the WBL.
The Sparks are currently preparing for the championship round in Dunedin on July 5-8.
Frances hopes last season will be the last not to feature a Nelson side.
She says there are two major barriers holding women’s sport back in the region.
“Money is first, and time is second.”
She says mums trying to fit sport around their many other commitments can be next to impossible.
“We have eight kids, whose mothers are in the team, ranging from 9 months to 13 years old.”
She says this is very indicative of women’s basketball.
“There are often kids around, they all wear Spark T shirts, so they are like our own little cheer squad.”
However, funding remains an issue. The Sparks are still without a primary naming sponsor.
“It costs a lot to prepare a team and travel around the country to play at this level. Next year, we are looking to play home and away games, but our budget will have to double, we just don’t have the current infrastructure to accommodate that.”
Frances says they have some fantastic businesses that have come on board this year but, unless they are playing in Nelson, it’s essentially a donation.
The team will host a fundraiser quiz on May 21 at the Speight’s Ale House.
If your business wishes to donate, contact Frances at [email protected]