Whenever Julia Tilley looks at a draw and finds out she is about to face tough competition she gets excited.
It's one of the best opportunities for her and her beach volleyball partner, Shaunna Polley, to improve their game, while also growing the sport overall, she says.
The Mount Maunganui beach volleyballer expects to face some strong competition with her teammate during the G.J. Gardner Homes NZ Beach Tour – a six-date beach volleyball competition series that marks the beginning of New Zealand's beach volleyball season.
The tour is introducing some changes this year and the first event of the series, Mauao Madness, which gets under way at Mount Maunganui's Main Beach today, gives a taste what's to come.
Some of the new initiatives include spreading the series out over three months, the addition of new venues and the introduction of a junior tour that also starts this weekend as part of Mauao Madness with at least 16 teams – nine boys and seven girls teams taking part.
Organiser Dave Miller says there are at least 10 men's and women's teams competing this weekend and there had been more interest in the junior event than was expected.
"We were worried you know that we could only get four teams or something but to have nine and seven already, that's really exciting," Miller says.
"This year we've got juniors at four events making their own little junior tour so this will be the first one of those."
The tour will visit Mount Maunganui twice, Gisborne, Nelson and Auckland over December, January and February.
"Its part of the national tour, we've changed quite a lot actually this year but the main thing with the dates, we've spread it out over three months instead of having it all crammed into January.
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He says the February events - at Mount Maunganui and Auckland - will showcase higher levels of competition as teams vie for Olympic qualification.
"We kind of put [the events] at two levels of prestige and prize money and points and that sort of thing so this first one is sort of the lower level and the one in Feb will be higher level.
"I expect February events to be of a pretty high standard with scope for some good international teams to visit ahead of the final Olympic qualifying period which will open with a World Tour event in Australia in March.
This weekend there will also be international athletes with an American team in particular wanting to be in New Zealand for the whole summer, providing plenty of competition for the Kiwis.
Tilley is excited for the start of the tour and will be at all six events, although Polley may be unavailable for Nelson in January.
"I'm really excited, the tour looks really good the team's been putting in a lot of hard work just trying to get kind of new venues and thinking more about spectators and sponsors and things like that so it's exciting to see that calendar out there ... and especially bringing beach volleyball to some of those towns that it hasn't been in for a little while, it's going to be really exciting for them as well.
"We're looking at getting some international players over here to play some of the events as well which again will increase the level."
For the past few weeks, Tilly says she and Polley have been getting together for regular training sessions and this weekend, they will be "looking for that win".
"It's good to see there's actually a few strong New Zealand women teams that are going to be competing and kind of around on the scene at the moment so that's really good for us, when we look a draw and we see that there's some strong teams that's exciting for us to kind of play tough games on New Zealand soil. It's just a great way for us to get better and the game to grow as well.
NZ Beach Tour:
Mauao Slam (Four Star event and Junior Joust): Mount Maunganui Main Beach, December 7-8.
Gisborne Slam ( 4 and 2 star events, Junior Joust): Waikanae Beach, Gisborne, December 28-29.
Nelson Super Slam (5 and 2 star events, and Junior Joust): Tahunanui Beach, Nelson, January 10-12.
Northland Slam (4 and 2 star events and Junior Joust): Ruakaka Beach, Northland, January 25-27.
Mauao Super Slam (5 and 2 star events): Mount Maunganui Main Beach, February 7-9.
Auckland tour finals (5 star event): Mission Bay Beach, Auckland, February 21-23.