Northland's top women's hockey team has a great chance at its maiden national title at the National Hockey League (NHL) competition in Tauranga this week.
After winning their first three games since the tournament's opening on Saturday, Northland qualified top of their pool and made it into the top four for the women's division alongside Canterbury, Central and North Harbour.
The 19-woman Northland squad will play off against the three other qualifying teams to decide who will play in the competition's final. In the last six years playing in the NHL, Northland had finished second three times but had never won.
Northland's chances in the competition were buoyed by the return of three of the region's Black Sticks. National hockey veterans Stacey Michelsen, Brooke Neal and Ella Gunson, who have almost 700 Black Sticks caps between them, were released by the national team to play for Northland.
Northland started with an absolute thriller in their first game against a formidable Central side on Saturday. Trailing 2-nil going into the last quarter, Michelsen scored two great goals to tie it up at fulltime.
This sent the game into a shootout where Northland goalkeeper Nicola Howes would prove the difference, saving a goal in sudden death to get the win.
Up next was a tough Midlands team which featured about 10 current or former Black Sticks. Despite having nine debutants in their squad, the Northland side was up 3-1 going into the last quarter.
Having rested Neal and Gunson due to game time restrictions for all Black Sticks, Northland's younger players couldn't resist a Midlands fightback in the final stages which saw the score tied up at 3-all.
Northland's luck in the shootout from Saturday deserted them this time as they were quickly put away by Midland's experienced scorers.
This would mean the team's final pool play match against Capital would be very important for top four qualification. Thankfully, the Northland women held their nerve to win 3-nil and advance as top qualifiers.
"I think there's nothing quite like coming back and putting on the baby blue for Northland," Neal said.
"It's just something that's very special and no matter where you go in the world, it's always special to come back and play with the people you grew up with."
Neal, 27, had played almost 200 games for the Black Sticks women's team but said her, Gunson and Michelsen jumped at the chance to represent their home region again.
"We wouldn't miss it for the world, we were all fizzing to play and now we are in the top four, it's even more impressive so hopefully the team can bring it home for the first time for Northland."
After three games in as many days and a tough test against North Harbour this afternoon, Neal said it was vital to recover for the crucial games ahead.
"Three games in three days is something not a lot of sports do, so it will be really important to rest up and then see what we can improve on."
It had been a stressful time for Northland coach Angeline Waetford who, by her own admission, wasn't a big fan of penalty shootouts.
However, the experienced coach said the squad, which also featured two Australian import players, had exceeded her expectations and should be very proud of their achievements so far.
"[Saturday] was the first time we played together as a team because you can never have the Black Sticks training with you and we have out of town players, so it was really good effort," she said.
While she was ecstatic to have the Black Sticks' wealth of experience and skill at her disposal, Waetford was overjoyed by the performance of her younger players.
"I guess what I'm most proud of is that nine of [our players] have never played the national league so when you look at that and compare it to Midlands, it's a massive effort on our part."
After a rest day yesterday, Waetford said the side would be fully focused on overcoming North Harbour today and creating history in the final on Sunday.
"Now that we've made the top four, we've come here to win it, that's not an unrealistic goal at all."
Updates on Northland's progress can be found on Hockey Northland's Facebook page.