From the time Tee Aiolupotea started slipping on a bib over her primary school shoulders to play for MAC, it wasn't just about netball — it was about choosing a lifestyle.
But when Aiolupotea made a decision this year to return to elite netball in Hawke's Bay she had to stray from the confines of her comfort zone of the MAC club because of its inability to field a side even in the Saturday premier grade competition, never mind the Karamau Holden Super 8 starting tomorrow. Consequently the 23-year-old defender, who prefers the goal keep slip to the goal defence one, put her feelers out to find another culture club in Hastings High School Old Girls' Proactive Huia.
"I think I've always looked up to defenders who used to play for the Huias team and also played for MAC for a long time," she says of Catrina O'Connell (nee Locke) and Raewyn Parahi (nee Wilson), who played alongside Aiolupotea's sister-in-law, Denise Aiolupotea (nee Au).
But when Tee Aiolupotea enters the Super 8 cauldron again on Pettigrew-Green Arena No 1 tomorrow, it'll be double the celebrations.
"On my first day back in Super 8 she'll be turning one," she says of daughter Kyani, who partner Asher Mitchell looks after when she trains and plays.
"My partner's awesome so he was really supportive of my decision to go to the Huias and a big part of which club I should go to," she says, finding first-time motherhood a challenge but indebted to her family and in-laws for easing the stress.
Aiolupotea, who returned to the MAC premier grade team four weeks after giving birth last year, will share a cake with teammates before their game starts against the Central Sports Vet Services at 7.30pm. A proper birthday bash for Kyani is on the agenda on Saturday.
The HB District Health Board employee is already relishing her time with the Rebecca Martin-mentored Huias and enjoys cracking jokes at "the awesome bunch" during training nights.
The Huias, who finished seventh last season, beat Toki Mana 50-33 to claim the final berth in the grading competition after 10 teams battled it out for Super 8 rights.
Last year's champions, Napier Girls High School, and losing finalists Otane Thirsty Whale were automatic qualifiers as were the Hastings Girls' High School. Third-placed Outkast Optimise Physio also got in because NGHS, who had a fairy-tale season of winning the Super 8 as well as the first-round Super 12 Shield competition, also qualify automatically as a school.
HB Netball operations manager Tina Arlidge says Central Sports and All In Tremains Elusive won their respective pools so they went straight through while Havelock North House of Travel Kauri Havelock North beat HHSOG BM Accounting Keas to end a Super 8 drought of several winters.
Central had a dream run in their pool grading stage, averaging a 30-goal wins a game to signal to the automatic four they mean business, says Arlidge.
All In won the head-to-head affair from Huias. Kauri overcame the odds as one of the lowest seeded teams to qualify after beating Keas, who have O'Connell in their ranks for premier one this season, 37-34.
"We are particularly looking forward to creating a partnership with Karamu Holden and appreciate them backing our regions largest sport," says Arlidge.
Aiolupotea, who represented Samoa at the 2015 World Cup and, in doing so, became the first Bay player to compete at that level in eight years, hopes to make a difference in Martin's blueprint.
"I hope I can give her the bib that she's after because she's an awesome coach and to think she's a defensive one as well even much better for me," she says, emphasising the collective ambition will eclipse any individuals who will set their season alight.
A laughing Aiolupotea says the Samoa ship to the World Cup in England in July has sailed for her but she will consider the next one in another two years.
Having lost three players to Wellington due to work and studies (Rebecca van Rooyen, Hanna Russell, Milly Douglas), Martin welcomes four newcomers, including Aiolupotea.
Briar Dransfield is playing for Kea because of work commitments on Friday nights.
"We're really excited about our defence with the return of Jade Waldin, who was in Ireland last year, and Libby Charlton, a school kid in year 11 from Havelock North [High], and we've got Tee who's so experienced," she says of Huias, who finished seventh after beating only NGHS and Otane but a rash of close losses.
Martin says as a completely new outfit last winter they didn't have the time to gel but playing a half round and then a full round didn't enable them to "get the feel of the team".
She salutes the change in format to two complete rounds this year which will give teams a better look at oppositions.
Martin, who has been at the helm of Huias for four years, is all for the development of the high schools but she isn't sure if that's the best way to do it.
"Firstly I think school teams change every year so maybe they should have a grading within the schools before deciding on which should be the two for the year but I definitely think schoolgirls should be in Super 8 because they are strong."
■ Huias team: Judy Brown (c), Jade Waldin (vc), Leah Flynn, Grace Nolan, Tee Aiolupotea, Laike Baker, Molly Deighton, Hanna Brough, Hannah O'Keeffe, Libby Charlton.
Coach: Rebecca Martin.
Shield round tomorrow at the Pettigrew-Green Arena, Taradale:
■ 6pm: All In v Otane, court 2.
■ 6pm: Kauri v HGHS, court 1.
■ 7.30pm: Huias v Central Sports, court 1.
■ 7.30pm: Outkast v NGHS, court 2.