Sixteen-year-old Auckland schoolgirl Kayla Cullen has beaten out several more experienced rivals to win a place in the New Zealand Under-21 side that will defend their World Youth Cup crown in the Cook Islands later this year.
Cullen, who is returning to full fitness after injuring her knee last year, was yesterday named in the 12-strong team at the expense of two ANZ Championship players - Julianna Naoupu of the Southern Steel, and the Central Pulse's Larrissa Harrison.
Cullen first became involved with the Under-21 programme last year when she was selected in the squad to tour Australia. But her call-up was shortlived after the Auckland Girls' Grammar student ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament against England on that tour.
Cullen has only just returned to the court and New Zealand Under-21 coach Yvette McCausland-Durie was impressed with what she saw.
"The mobility and the timing and the movement she offers were certainly big factors for us, and she sits really high in terms of her shooting stats," said McCausland-Durie. "Given she was injured, you always have that thought in the back of your mind 'gosh she's performing like that in an injured state, imagine what can happen'.
"The challenge now for us is to get her well-conditioned and playing at the intensity required at that level."
Also to make the cut was former Tall Fern Jessica McCormack, who only last month announced her intention to make the switch to netball.
Like Cullen, McCormack's inclusion in the squad is subject to further medical and fitness clearances with the 1.94m defender still recovering from Achilles surgery.
While some may object to McCormack's inclusion after being involved in the Under-21 programme for only a month, McCausland-Durie said they have had a shortage of defenders for some time.
"We haven't had a huge number of defenders, and that's been a big challenge for us pretty much for the entire four-year programme.
"Something that we've been looking for throughout New Zealand is height in that defensive end. We were really challenged to find that and we feel fortunate that something's occurred before the World Champs and not after.
"Certainly it was a challenging decision to make, but we feel really strongly about what she can bring and offer."
NZ UNDER-21 SIDE
Hannah Broederlow (Central Pulse), Alanah Cassidy (Western), Emily Close (Otago), Hayley Crofts (Southland), Kayla Cullen* (Auckland/Waitakere), Paula Griffin (Central Pulse), Charlotte Kight (Canterbury Tactix), Camilla Lees (Central Pulse), Jess McCormack* (Accelerant Group), Jess Moulds (Otago), Grace Rasmussen (Northern Mystics), Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit (Southern Steel).
* Kayla Cullen and Jess McCormack's selection is subject to medical and fitness clearances