Lack of planning for exit of star captain among factors in side's tumble from grace.
Were it not for a cruel bounce of the ball, the Northern Mystics would have been in last year's ANZ Championship grand final, making the title decider for the second straight season.
This year they are anchored to the bottom of the table, and only a miracle result against the finals-bound Magic in Monday night's final round clash can save them from collecting the wooden spoon.
Without their star centre and inspirational leader Temepara Bailey, who retired at the end of last season, the Auckland side were always expected to be left exposed in the midcourt this year. But given the Mystics still had a solid core of Silver Ferns remaining, along with Australian import Julie Corletto, in many ways it is unfathomable that they have slipped so far off the pace. The unravelling really began last year, before a string of injuries and disruptions saw their season rapidly descend into a downward spiral.
Poor succession planning
Given Bailey's retirement was sign-posted for some time, it seems almost unconscionable that the Mystics didn't have a succession plan in the midcourt. Even from the outset of the transtasman league she was considered a year-by-year proposition, and the Auckland side should have begun preparing much earlier for life without her, by developing a young player that would be ready to step up and fill the role. Instead, the Mystics found themselves using converted defender Kayla Cullen in the role - an experiment that hasn't worked, with rookie Erikana Pederson filling the starting centre spot since mid-way through the season.
Mother of all surprises
The Mystics also didn't have an obvious successor to take over as captain, appointing Maria Tutaia and Anna Harrison as co-captains, although neither had been viewed as natural leaders. Tutaia soon found herself in sole charge after Harrison announced in February that she was expecting her first child and would be withdrawing from the squad. With Tutaia holidaying in France for much of February, the Mystics were left without leadership for a key part of their build-up - including the league's pre-season tournament in Melbourne.
Losing key defender Charlotte Kight to a season-ending Achilles injury in the second training session of the year set the tone for the Mystics year, with key players, including Grace Rasmussen (ankle), Julie Corletto (knee) and Jess Moulds (shoulder), missing a chunk of the build-up, meaning the new-look combinations had little opportunity to gel.
Steep learning curve
The losses in their defence end meant the young players initially signed to development contracts soon found themselves upgraded to fulltime contracts, with Jessica Bourke and Erikana Pederson joining the likes of fellow rookies Elisapeta Toeava and Malia Paseka in the main squad. The newcomers faced a steep learning curve on and off the court, and they took time to adjust to the demands of a high-performance environment.
The presence of all the youngsters in the squad served the purpose of providing an in-built excuse for the team to under-perform, with players claiming the focus this year was on development. You'll never hear any Australian team say they're in a re-building phase, even if it's true.
Senior players not stepping up
With so many newcomers to the squad, the pressure was on the established members of the team to perform.
But some of the Mystics' Silver Ferns failed to live up to their reputations, with shooter Cathrine Latu having a particularly quiet season. While Latu sits alongside Irene van Dyk as the most accurate shooters in the league, the Mystics star's volume has been well down this year, leading to her spending most of the second half of the season on the bench.
Key players carrying injury
It didn't help that the Mystics were unable to get 60 minutes out of two of their star players - Corletto and Cullen - due to on-going injury concerns. Both players regularly had to be replaced late in matches as they were unable to play out a full game. It was Cullen's cramping problems in her calves that were most frustrating, with the issue a result of poor recovery and preparation. With Ruth Aitken needing to reshuffle her line-up to cover for the injuries, the Mystics have been unable to get any continuity with their combinations.
ANZ Championship - round 14
Tomorrow: 2.10pm Melbourne Vixens v West Coast Fever, Melbourne; 4.10pm Adelaide Thunderbirds v Queensland Firebirds, Adelaide; 7.20pm Southern Steel v Central Pulse, Invercargill.
Monday: 7.40pm Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic v Northern Mystics, Tauranga; 9.40pm NSW Swifts v Mainland Tactix, Sydney.