The New Zealand Women's Basketball Championship (WBC) gets underway this weekend with Tauranga hosting the first of three tournament weekends.
Ten provincial teams will contest the 2016 championship plus the Junior Tall Ferns.
The WBC takes on the same format as last year with some games played outside the three tournament weekends, in an attempt to promote the women's game and profile the players in their local associations.
The first tournament is played this Friday to Sunday, (March 4-6) with all games played at ASB Arena, Truman Lane, Mount Maunganui.
There are 26 games scheduled as the 11 teams strive for a place amongst the top six sides that will contest the Championship section at the final tournament in Porirua in mid-May.
Alloyfold Canterbury Wildcats look to have made the most significant recruiting moves in the off-season. Not only have they brought into their squad former Tall Fern Sally Farmer but the Wildcats have signed the highly credentialed American Ashley Gayle. The 26-year-old Gayle was a standout at the University of Texas setting an all-time single season shot blocking record during her four year, 130 games career with the Longhorns.
The 6ft 4ins centre has played professionally in Bulgaria and Sydney, and appears to have the athleticism to be a game changer in the WBC this season.
Canterbury coach Lori McDaniel is understandably delighted to have acquired the services of Gayle who was spotted by Canterbury Rams coach Mark Dickel playing at a tournament in Las Vegas.
"She is a great find for us and we are excited about it. She is coming with her fiancée who will be working, so for them it is as much about a lifestyle choice as it is about basketball," says McDaniel.
"In addition to Gayle's playing ability, it will also be wonderful to have her to go out and about in the community, able to go out into the schools, and have a presence as we are trying to raise the profile of the game."
Double Olympian Sally Farmer, at 39 years of age, is a surprise addition to the Canterbury roster.
"Sally has agreed to be on the roster and we are hopeful she will play in at least one tournament," said McDaniel.
"I think it is great for the younger players to have someone of Sally's experience willing to be in the mix. Sally and I played together and she was happy to come back more for the team's benefit than her own, which I am grateful for," she added.
Defending champions Oceana Otago Gold Rush have lost the services of internationals Jillian Harmon and Samara Gallaher with both playing professionally overseas. Harmon is unavailable due to commitments to Le Mura Lucca in Italy but there is a possibility Gallaher could return from Australia for the second tournament in Nelson next month.
The ACM Lady Hawks finished runners-up last year. They'll be led by Tall Ferns point guard Jordan Hunter and will be hoping to go one better this year. Hunter is quietly optimistic about her team's chances.
"I think that team chemistry will play a huge factor in our success this season. Our team is similar to last year with one or two additions. Of course we are definitely aiming to get to the finals, but it'll have to be one step at a time for sure. I'm definitely excited with our team though."
Waikato Wizards finished runners-up in 2013 and 2014 but will have to manage without dual international Jessica Tuki this season. Tuki has moved south to link up with Taranaki Thunder.
Tall Ferns Assistant Coach Aik Ho is coaching the Waitakere Lady Rangers. The team has benefitted from North Harbour's absence this season by recruiting Deena Franklin and Amanda Buck, and Ho is also hoping Tall Ferns centre Megan Craig will suit up as they look to improve on last season's seventh placing. Craig's availability will hinge on her netball commitments for the Northern Force.
With a youthful side Wellington based Capital Flyers will be bolstered by the return of guard Jasmine Davis. Davis returns after a spell at the University of Wyoming and will be hoping to display the form that gained her a Tall Ferns trial last year.
2012 Champions Nelson Sparks will boast a customary blend of youth and experience and will be hoping international Jess Bygate can be freed from professional commitments in Australia to bolster its ranks.
Te Tai Tokerau Phoenix and Tauranga City Coasters will look to build on the experience gained in their WBC debut seasons last year. A finish outside the bottom four would be a major achievement for either of these two teams.
New Zealand Women's Basketball Championship Fixtures:
Tournament 1, 4 - 6 March
ASB Arena, Truman Lane, Mount Maunganui.
Tournament 2, 1 - 3 April
Saxton Stadium, 142 Saxton Rd East, Nelson.
Tournament 3, 12 - 13 May
Porirua Basketball Association, Te Rauparaha Arena, Porirua