‘It’s about survival’ – Surrey aim to weather the storm of 2020

SURREY Storm is a VNSL team with a proud history of making it to grand finals and producing performances of the highest standard. Since they began their partnership with the University of Surrey in 2009, they have appeared in five grand finals, winning twice in 2015 and 2016, and, despite some changes to their roster in recent years, have consistently remained a threatening side in the competition. As the Superleague’s only player/coach, Director of Netball Mikki Austin certainly has her hands full when it comes to preparing for 2021. Draft Central spoke to Austin and Yaz Parsons, who recently announced the renewal of her contract with the Surrey side, about what this coming season will entail and how they plan to overcome the challenges of this unusual year.

Prior to the cancellation of the Superleague, Storm were one of the last teams to get out on court, facing Manchester Thunder at home just days before the country went into lockdown. 

“On one hand it was obviously really sad and devastating for us to put in so much work in to then have it cut short, but I’m very realistic to the outside situation,” Austin said. “I certainly felt that it was absolutely the right call for everybody’s own health and safety.” 

The start of the season had been full of tough and close contests for Storm, with a win and a loss by one goal in the opening two rounds, along with two further losses to Strathclyde Sirens and Thunder. This wasn’t the start that Storm were hoping for to the 2020 season, but Austin is focussed on looking forward to the new year.

“I am very conscious of taking some learnings from that in terms of how competitive the league is becoming in a year on year basis, and what can we take from those learnings that will put us in good stead for 2021.”

Despite the disappointment of the cancellation, and the disruption to life caused by COVID-19 in general, Austin did her best to stay upbeat and look after herself mentally and physically during the long off-season. 

“I don’t want to complain because in the scheme of life I really don’t have that much to complain about,” Austin said. “Whatever way you want to look at it, playing sport for a living is a complete luxury and maybe this little hiatus has given us all a chance to step back… and have a look at things in a bit of a deeper and wider perspective.”

Under Austin’s leadership, this ethos has permeated through the club. The team stayed positive throughout the break and used the adjustment period to rediscover things they enjoyed outside of playing netball. Parsons relished the opportunity to spend more time with family and took on the challenge of how to maintain fitness without the usual group training sessions. 

“I got my bike out, I think I’ve done more cycling than I’ve ever done, and I fell in love with outdoor running again”, she said. “When you’re training and playing at the intensity and the level that we do you just don’t get to do that stuff any more.”

Despite the uncertainty of the situation, Parsons kept her head down and through a regular timetable of Zoom calls, Instagram Live workouts with her followers and even a weekly virtual pub quiz, she managed to stay connected and maintain her fitness goals. Being an England Rose, Parsons was also following a structured programme set by the Roses Strength and Conditioning team and was supplied some weights by the England sponsor Perform Better to sustain her strength and stay ready for the return to court.

As a player, Director of Netball and head coach, Austin had the additional pressure of maintaining her skills and fitness levels, as well as leading her team, coping with a mountain of ever-changing COVID guidelines, and finalising the new 2021 roster. 

“It is tough, you have to be really organised, you have to be able to juggle lots of different things and wear lots of different hats, but I love it and I feel very lucky.”

The only person in the league to straddle both on-court and off-court roles, Austin relies on the expertise and honesty of her support team when it comes to the selection process. Her assistant coaches play a crucial role in overseeing the team when she is out on court. 

“When I’ve got a bib on and I’m playing, whether that’s in training or in matches, I transfer to just being a player,” Austin said. “That decision on whether I’m doing my job or not is taken out of my hands. I appreciate that for the good of the team, sometimes the right thing is for me absolutely to not be on the court, sometimes the right thing is for me to be on the court.”

This unique setup requires an enormous amount of trust within the group, something Austin is proud to represent at the franchise.

“Two things that I operate on are hard work and honesty…which means we have to have some upfront and honest conversations which sometimes can be difficult, but that way everybody knows where they stand.”

For 2021, the Storm lineup will look a little different. The announcement of two key retirements – captain Katy Hughes and Storm stalwart Lorraine Kowalewska – will leave some big shoes to fill, especially in the defensive end. The Surrey side have been planning for these departures over the past few months but Parsons and the team are ready to face the challenges ahead.

“For us, in terms of the new Storm team, I think now those types of leaders are gone I think we’re going to have to step up, and I’m now going to find myself being one of the oldest in the group.”

As well as being an experienced member of the squad, Parsons is also making a name for herself in the red dress and earned selection to her first England Roses senior tour just a few weeks ago. The test series in New Zealand later this month will be a big opportunity to test herself against the world’s best on the international stage. In her second year in the full-time Roses programme, she has high expectations of herself, and selection for this tour is a sign that her hard work is paying off. 

“Just to see your name in that lineup is the best feeling ever. It sends you up to cloud nine straight away – it’s a dream come true.”

The midcourter is known for her tenacity and leadership on court, and will be hoping to develop and fine-tune her game throughout the series. With Chelsea Pitman and Nat Haythornthwaite not available for this international window due to the intensity of the condensed Super Netball season, the starting wing attack position is something that could be up for grabs.

“My target and my goal is to hopefully be selected in the 12 and represent England on the court in that wing attack bib”, Parsons said. “It’s definitely a focus of mine going into this tour, so hopefully I’ll achieve it. If I don’t it’s a fantastic opportunity for me and I’m going to learn so much.”

The valuable experience gained by playing alongside the likes of Serena Guthrie and England’s most capped player Jade Clarke, will be instrumental in building Parsons’ confidence for when she returns to the UK to re-commence training for the VNSL. Whilst the captaincy has not yet been announced, as vice-captain last year, Parsons will likely be called up for the job.

“I think looking at our squad and at the calibre we have, I am so excited for us to get back in training together as a group of women and athletes,” Austin said. “We’re certainly ready and raring to go.”

Storm have re-signed dynamic midcourter Emily Gulvin for the new season, with more players expected to be announced in the coming weeks. With everything falling in to place in preparation for next season, Austin is focused on getting her franchise through whatever lies ahead. There have been so many bumps in the road for VNSL franchises over the last six months, whether it’s financial struggles or personnel changes, and the upcoming year is likely to be no different.

“Our aim next year is to simply survive, get the franchise through it off-court, make sure that we can be as sustainable as we possibly can for the future,” Austin said. “I am obsessed with getting this franchise back where we know it can be, which is that finals, top four, competing side.”

With this level of grit and determination spearheading the side, the future is looking bright for Storm. The players are dedicated and Parsons believes that the group chemistry is something unique to the side.

“I think we really do it for each other, we’ve got a really strong bond and connection and we all play for each other. If there was a definition for teamwork, it’s Surrey Storm.”

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3 years ago

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