Hayley Saunders, rising netball star, no longer has to be known as the younger sister of South Island rugby star Matt Saunders.

Her naming in the Silver Ferns national accelerant squad caps a whirlwind 12 months for the 21-year-old mid-courter.

She completed her first ANZ Championship season with the Southern Steel, toured Australia with the New Zealand under-21 team and tasted court time with the triumphant Fastnet Ferns in England.

It should mean that both in her home town of Gore and her adopted city of Dunedin she will no longer just be known as Matt's little sister.

"Yeah, I guess it will be good to make a name for myself," says Saunders, "though I will always be proud of what my brother has achieved."

Matt was a 17-year-old schoolboy when he first represented North Otago in 2000, before starring for Otago and the Highlanders from 2003-07. He has played for Southland Stags for the past three seasons, including their white-knuckle Ranfurly Shield ride this year.

"I managed to go to almost every game this season," says Saunders. "It was horrible, so nerve racking. Often I would be covering my eyes before the end of matches."

The 1.78m Saunders was one of four players (along with Rachel Rasmussen, Jessica Moulds and Te Huinga Reo Selby-Rickit) added to the national accelerant squad that comes under the Silver Ferns management structure.

Saunders, who is now effectively a carded athlete within the national programme, still seems surprised to be on the selectors' radar.

"Before this year, I didn't know where I was going," she admitted. "I knew I wanted to take the next step but I was in no-man's land. I had no idea I was in the frame for the Steel - even if [coach] Robyn [Broughton] did."

Picked up by the Steel, Saunders made her debut in a famous win over the Magic in round 10 of the ANZ Championship, coming up against Laura Langman.

"I wouldn't say it was daunting but it was a little scary," recalls Saunders. "It took about two minutes for the nerves to go away. She is someone I have always looked up to."

Since then, the improvement has been rapid, and Saunders gives a lot of credit to wily mentor Broughton.

"I have physically changed - I am fitter and stronger - and Robyn has helped me break some bad habits."

She now tries to combine "instinct with structure" and says her increased speed, agility and strength has made everything a lot easier.

"I set goals but I am not expecting anything," says Saunders. "I'm not putting pressure on myself.

"There is still such a long way to go. It is a big step up just to ANZ Championship level. I don't want to be thrust in if not ready; being thrown in early can have a negative impact."

Saunders, who names local legends like Adine Wilson and Bernice Mene as her sporting heroes, was a "giant" at her small town school. Her self-consciousness wasn't helped by her brothers nicknaming her "Horse", due to a rather unflattering fringe.

Playing in all conditions, including snow-covered courts on which grit would be sprinkled to add some grip, she progressed steadily through the netball ranks, making the senior high school team as a fourth former followed by local representative teams.

Saunders, the youngest of four children, was "picked on all the time" at home, which she says "probably toughened her up". She also remembers spending whole afternoons with her brothers as they worked on their rugby skills.

"One day [Matt] was practising his passes," recalls Saunders, "and the ball kept thumping into my chest. Afterwards I had the sorest chest and mud all over my new white t-shirt but I didn't care; this was my big brother and he was having passes with me."

A much more important brotherly lesson has come recently: "[Matt] has talked to me a lot about keeping balance as a sportsperson," reflects Saunders. "When he first made the Highlanders, he gave up his studies and it was just rugby, rugby, rugby. He enjoyed it less and his play suffered."

It has given Saunders extra motivation to continue her studies at Otago University. She is working towards a BA in psychology and social work and is determined to finish it, even as success brings greater on-court demands.