Whilst Mikki Austin was seemingly one of the few people not surprised by Storm’s superb victory over Loughborough Lightning on Monday, she is well aware that another of Round 13s ‘giantkillers’ will be eager to upset the form book again at the Sports Park arena on Saturday.
London Pulse’s 62-59 win against Saracens Mavericks – just their second of the season – raised a few eyebrows around the Vitality Superleague, and Storm will pay their opponents due respect this weekend.
“Pulse had a brilliant win, and I have no doubt they will be absolutely gunning to prove that that wasn’t a one-time thing and they can back that up this Saturday,” admits Mikki, who has a direct answer for anybody thinking Pulse will be an ‘easier’ game for Storm than had been anticipated against Lightning.
“I think an ‘easier game’ in this league this year doesn’t exist. We beat Pulse by a convincing margin last time we went to the Copper Box, so we’ll be targeting this as one of our games that we would like to win, but you go into every single game paying the opposition the respect that they demand and deserve.”
Mikki also sees Pulse as one of several teams still vying to secure qualification for October’s Fast5, and identifies games between those sides as particularly crucial.
“We’re in this mini league with Pulse, Stars and Dragons, so it’s really important that we pick up points against each other. We’re all gunning for each other, so it’s an amazing time to be in netball. It’s never been more competitive than it has this year, whether that’s the top five teams vying for four places, or us three teams and below that are vying for places.”
Monday night’s victory on national television was further evidence of Mikki’s recent assertions that her players are agonisingly close to forcing themselves into that top five, but still she demands more.
“The girls are sick of me saying ‘we’re doing the right things, we’ve got to trust the process’, and now they don’t have to listen to me. They’ve proved it to themselves, that we can really grind out a win even under immense pressure. It was no surprise to me that we were winning at the end of 30 minutes, but we proved to ourselves that when the going gets tough we can still execute under pressure.
“We knew Loughborough were going to adapt, and come back at us. But are we smart enough to figure out how they’ve adapted? That comes of experience, and we have one of the most inexperienced teams in this league.”
Was it one of the best performances of the season? “It’s definitely up there. There’s not many moments in this job that are really rewarding and super high, so they make the low points and the stressful points a lot easier to deal with!”
Sigi Burger’s Player of the Match performance inevitably took most of the plaudits but, says Mikki, her personal rewards are built on the support of her team-mates.
“Full credit to Sigi, she shot at 97% and was unbelievable. She was world class, but she has been world class for us all season – she’s currently the number one shooter in this whole league. That’s incredible. But that’s a testament to the service that we’re giving her and the work that we’ve done with her to adapt her game and her robustness. But she was one of probably four or five athletes that could have got Player of the Match for us (on Monday).
“I thought our defence yet again were absolutely outstanding – Lorraine Kowalewska and Katie Hughes have really cemented their combination in the back there. I think Yaz Parsons and Emily Gulvin did an outstanding job. Everyone that graced the court did exactly what we required of them.”
For the first time in too long, one of those players was Mikki herself, as she returned from injury. “It’s so good to don the dress and get back out there,” she smiles. “I certainly missed the feeling of getting out there and being amongst it with the girls. But it’s always about what is best for the team, and the right thing for the team was the combination that started. I didn’t deserve to inject the game any earlier than I did. It was just to give Loughborough something else to think about, and have a little bit of a cool head out there.”
That depth of squad and ability to make game-changing decisions during a tight game is crucial, and especially so in such a competitive and unpredictable season.
“You’d be a fool to try and predict the top four at this current moment in time,” she concludes. “There is always something to play for. Even teams that are sitting in this mini-league, from sixth to eighth, are still vying for qualification for Fast Five. There is always something to play for, and I expect to see that from my players throughout every quarter throughout every game until the final round.”