Larkfield’s Lisa Somerville led the way with 34 goals as Northern Ireland got their International Festival of Netball campaign off to a superb start at the Antrim Forum.
The strapping six-footer, formerly Lisa Bowman, hasn’t played for her country for four years due to a double maternity break but made her presence felt against tournament outsiders Botswana.
With the prolific Noleen Lennon switched to the opposite end of the court in the absence of injured captain Gemma Gibney, Somerville was handed the responsibility of being chief shooter and confidently delivered.
This was a more than satisfactory first outing for Kate Carpenter’s girls in green against African opponents whose world ranking of 18th doesn’t flatter them.
Quarter-finalists at the 2007 World Cup for which Northern Ireland didn’t even qualify, Botswana have a proud netballing history and being here for this invitational tournament also suggests they are ambitious for the future.
However they couldn’t live with the host nation last night, particularly in the third quarter when Northern Ireland really hit their stride to pull decisively clear by outscoring Botswana 17-4 in that 15 minutes.
Having shown intent by fielding her strongest seven from the off, coach Carpenter was able to empty her bench for the final period which an unfamiliar line-up still edged by a couple of goals.
The typically clinical Lennon quickly rattled up nine goals from 11 attempts in that final quarter to take the pressure off teenage Belfast Ladies clubmate Ciara Crosbie, who had come on for her first taste of competitive action at senior level.
As well as being able to give everyone a run-out, effectively clinching victory early meant Carpenter could withdraw her big guns including Caroline O’Hanlon, who wore padding to protect her recently broken ribs and came through unscathed.
The classy centre came off along with fellow doctor Oonagh McCullough and skipper Hannah Willis, who received a special presentation afterwards to make the milestone of 50 caps.
“That was a nice touch to round off a postive evening for us – winning well, getting everybody on and really building on our lead rather than sitting on it which we’ve been guilty of at times in the past,” said Willis.
That established attacking trio of O’Hanlon, Willis and McCullough ensured a steady service to Somerville who converted 34 of her 45 chances to send Northern Ireland into the final quarter leading by a 29-goal margin.
A second victory over St Lucia – beaten 51-33 by Barbados last night – this evening (7pm) will guarantee Northern Ireland a place in Sunday’s final ahead of tomorrow’s concluding group game.
NORTHERN IRELAND: N Lennon, F Campbell, F Toner, C O’Hanlon, H Willis (capt), O McCullough, L Somerville. Subs: N Cooper (for Campbell), N Masters (for Somerville), C McLean (for O’Hanlon), M Drayne (for Willis), C Crosbie (for McCullough).