Dana Johannsen is the NZ Herald's chief sports reporter

Netball: Teenage star under the spotlight

Kayla Cullen has been named the ANZ Championship's best young player.  Photo / Christine Cornege
Kayla Cullen has been named the ANZ Championship's best young player. Photo / Christine Cornege

With a line-up stacked with internationals, the Northern Mystics have taken the buzz and hype that surrounds ANZ Championship grand final week pretty much in their stride.

Having a swarm of reporters and TV cameras descend on their training camp this week is nothing new for players such as Temepara George, Maria Tutaia, Anna Scarlett and Joline Henry, who are used to that sort of attention with the Silver Ferns.

But one player looked distinctly uncomfortable as she fronted the cameras this week. Unfortunately for her, she was the player everyone most wanted to talk to: Kayla Cullen.

The 19-year-old, this week named as the competition's best young player, has been one of the biggest talking points in the lead-up to her side's grand final clash against the Queensland Firebirds tomorrow.

She has been one of the stand-outs in the Mystics' surprising finals run, producing big performances over the past two weeks. And tomorrow the young goal defence has the task of trying to stop the Firebirds' key play-maker, Natalie Medhurst.

While Cullen gets rather nervous dealing with the media onslaught, Mystics coach Debbie Fuller doesn't believe her young charge will be affected by nerves before the match.

"She doesn't seem to fold under pressure, in fact she seems to be the type of player that likes the big games," said Fuller.

It's a trait the teen has displayed from the outset of her career.

First selected in the 2010 Mystics squad as a shooter, a spate of injuries saw Cullen fill in as a defender for a couple of trial matches. She made such an impact the Mystics management opted to keep her there, with Cullen making her debut at goal defence in the Auckland side's opening game of the season.

It was a game Cullen ranks as one of her career highlights. The newly turned defender had also just turned 18 and was named in the starting line-up for the Mystics game against the Adelaide Thunderbirds.

Matching up on Australian international Kate Beveridge, Cullen's first touch of the ball was a brilliant intercept in which she accelerated from five paces behind Beveridge to snaffle possession for her side.

Cullen continued to show glimpses of promise in her cameo roles off the bench last season.

But this year she has well and truly delivered on that promise, playing in all 15 of the Mystics' games to date. She is one of the Mystics key ball-getters, sitting second in deflections, intercepts and gains.

But it was her stand-out performance in the Mystics' unlikely win over the NSW Swifts in the minor semifinal that confirmed the 19-year-old as a unanimous choice for the competition's rookie the year.

Despite all the accolades Cullen still dreams of returning to the shooting circle. At any spare moment in training you'll find her putting up shots alongside the shooters.

"I haven't given up on it just yet."

But if Fuller has her way, Cullen will stay where she is. "She wants to go back to the shooting circle because it is easier," laughed Fuller.

She describes Cullen as being in the same mould as former Silver Ferns captain Adine Wilson, who early in her career played at both ends of the court.

"Kayla is a player who could play anywhere and because she has such great instincts, she would be an asset in any position. But we quite like her where she is at the moment."

- NZ Herald

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