When Emma Magee went down with an ankle injury during the first quarter of Storm’s 2021 VNSL season, 16-year-old Sophie Kelly’s netball career changed forever, writes Sophie Reynolds.
Netball is the highest participation sport for females in the UK, and for many young players the dream is to one day play in the Vitality Netball Superleague.
Last month that dream became a reality for 16-year-old Sophie Kelly, when she made her debut for Surrey Storm in their first VNSL game of the 2021 season against London Pulse.
“I really was not expecting it at all,” Kelly said, recalling that moment in the first quarter when she replaced Emma Magee, who suffered an unfortunate injury, at Goal Attack.
“I kind of thought I was just going, I’d be there to support the girls, I might get a quarter or something, but then when Emma got injured and Mikki (Austin) was like ‘it’s your turn’, I was like ‘oh my god’.
“I just thought to myself: you have just got to get on, do your job, and don’t over think it.”
Storm finished that game victorious, beating their local rivals Pulse 40-42, and to top of her dream debut Kelly was also crowned player of the match.
With a beaming smile upon her face, Kelly said: “I couldn’t quite believe it, I thought I had played fine but I didn’t think I’d played well enough to get player of the match.
“It was really exciting, and I did cry afterwards.
“I think it was just kind of all the emotions of winning the game, making my debut and all of that just mixed into one and suddenly everything came over me.”
Since then, the 16-year-old has started for Storm twice, once against Leeds Rhinos and again against Wasps.
However, as much as this may seem like every young players’ dream Kelly hasn’t reached where she is now without constant hard work and dedication.
The shooter is currently in lower-sixth at a school in Winchester, studying for her A-levels, and since returning to school after the third UK lockdown has had a tight schedule to follow.
“During school, I have six lesson blocks but only three of them are taken up with my actual lessons, so what I try to do as much as possible is fit my training sessions into my study periods.
“So, on a Monday I will go out to the courts and do a conditioning session, and then on Tuesday I will go to the gym and do some weights, and also sometimes, if the sports hall is free, I can go and do my shooting practice inside.
“Then I try to fit in as much schoolwork as possible in and around everything!”
Being the youngest player in the Storm side, Kelly is the only one that has had to return to school this week with most other players currently working or at university.
Despite the new busy schedule, the Superleague star has loved being able to spend time with people her own age again and speak about something other than netball.
“I think being at home was easier to fit everything in because I didn’t have to travel to and from school, so I did have more time and I also had more freedom.
“But, I also think being at school helps me become more motivated because I have to be that bit more organised to fit everything in, and I do love being around my friends every day and I think it is really nice to get a little break away from netball and hang out with them.”
Kelly’s friendships at Storm are still just as important to her though and have brought her a whole new outlook on life as she is inundated with role models.
“I have definitely heard a new range of conversations going on at training, everyone talking about their fiancés and their jobs and I just can’t really relate at all!
“But it is really interesting, and I think to some extent I have almost matured a little bit more because they are all adults, and they treat me like I am an adult too which I think is really nice.”
Having multiple friendship groups, as well as balancing school and netball isn’t new to the Storm shooter who has been on the Storm pathway since she was 13 and is also part of the England Rose’s Academy.
The Goal Attack was adamant that all the hard work is worth it as long as she still has a smile on her face.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself because I think if I start doing that it could all go downhill, but I think it’s just about enjoying it and taking everything from it that I can.
“Playing against all these experienced players in the Superleague, like Fran Williams the other weekend, is just an amazing learning experience for me and I think at the moment I am just taking away as much as I possibly can.”
As of the 29th March, when outdoor community netball is set to return, many more players across the country will be able to go back to enjoying their netball again.
When asked what advice she would give to the young players finally returning to court, Kelly said: “I would just say to them, take every single opportunity that is given to you, never say no and try and always do everything you can.
“Especially as a shooter, for me personally, doing your shooting practice every day is a really vital thing and just doing all the extra sessions that you are told to do, like the fitness sessions and ball work, because you might think ‘oh its only one session’, but it all adds up.
“I also think when you are younger you just need to make sure you are enjoying it and if you are not having fun then something is probably wrong and you need to figure out what that is, and then find a way to start enjoying playing again,
“I think if you start hating the game then you are never going to go far because you don’t want to work hard for it.”