Havelock North High School is celebrating its first volleyball crown on foreign soil after a magical run in Australia at the weekend.
In the Hastings school's first trip in the code overseas, the senior girls' team went through unblemished after 13 matches in division two of the annual Australian Volleyball Schools Cup on the Gold Coast.
"It's the first time ever," said coach Ian Johnson from the Queensland resort after seven days of gruelling competition at the Gold Coast Sport and Leisure Centre, Coomera Indoor Sports Centre and Runaway Bay Indoor Sport Stadium at a tournament that enticed 413 teams from 124 schools.
The Grace Brebner-captained villagers had qualified at the top of their pool after round-robin play in the 12-team division, thus earning them a straight entry into the final where they beat Canterbury College, a high school located between Brisbane and Gold Coast, 2-0 (25-18, 25-16) on Saturday night.
The gold medal was a glowing endorsement of a two-year commitment from the schoolgirls when Johnson had broached the idea of competing overseas and the Sunday investments had reaped rewards. It required some manoeuvring because the volleyballers also had to fulfil their winter code obligations.
"Towards the latter part of this year they also had exams so we were just trying to find a slot where we could practise," said the physical education teacher who has mentored boys and girls for more than 30 years, albeit predominantly with female teams while putting his hand up along the way when they were unable to find coaches.
He has coached basketball, cricket, football girls' rugby as well although badminton and volleyball are his mainstay as of late.
Once a week, the champion volleyballers grafted their skills against boys' teams, club sides and even travelling to the other side of the defunct gorge to gauge their worth against the Palmerston North women's team.
"We were just doing whatever we could to get games," he said. "It's not easy to get game time so that's why we got our senior boys to play to provide tougher opposition so we had the ball smashed harder at us and served harder."
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Johnson said they didn't travel to the tourney with any unrealistic expectations but to simply enjoy themselves.
"When you go away to any tournament you don't know how you're going to fare so this was even more of an unknown."
He said on the platform of an uncomplicated blueprint they had tried to play smart and let the results take care of themselves.
"They just exceeded expectations and we just got better and better and better."
Johnson said his schoolgirls deserved to be the division two champions which in Australia is their year 12 grade but equivalent to the New Zealand year 13 one.
He had impressed on rival coaches how the Havelock North High team had to toil for every victory over the seven days.
"It was always a challenge and there were no easy games," he said. "It was the right division because we could have chosen the division above it [first] if we felt we could match it — or down — but we got some advice from some people and they got that right," he said with a laugh.
The schoolgirls, among five others from New Zealand in the marquee Aussie high school tourney, had battled intense hot days, lethargy and lactic acid to earn their pride of place.
"It was incredibly humid so we were trying to manage ourselves with hydration and trying to stay cool." said Johnson, revealing Havelock North High had used their timeouts methodically when he sense the teenagers were beginning to fade a little.
Some lateral thinking — after earning the privilege on winning tosses — saw them choose to start their matches at one end of the court where doors and windows to maximise better air flow, which had enabled them to conserve energy for pivotal stages when a push came to a shove.
"So with little things like that, I think, we finished pretty well because no one conked out on us."
Johnson said the girls were very pleased and emotional because it was the last outing for five of the eight in Havelock North colours. The villagers are perennially among the top three with Hastings Girls' High and Napier Girls' High in the provincial schools' competition.
"It's emotional in a last game anytime no matter whether it be netball, basketball or volleyball so that's a biggie but to finish on a high was a huge thing for them because a few tears were shed."
The core of them had stayed together from year 9 when the funding drive began. You name it they did it — movie nights, sausage sizzles, pine cone sales, quiz nights.
"There were no big ones — just lots of small ones."
Johnson said Havelock North High now had a revitalised approach to keeping the overseas tournament project going while the seniors graduate to university and other commitments.
The team, with some family members, had celebrated at an Italian restaurant and were heading off to the Movie World, a Warner Bros studio theme park today.
"We had made a decision that it wasn't just about the volleyball — yes, it was about the volleyball as a focus — but we weren't going to come all this way and just not do other things," he said.
They return home tomorrow night.