Most schoolteachers have already put their feet up for the summer holidays but there’s no let-up for Northern Ireland netball captain Hannah Willis as she prepares to lead the girls green to their first-ever Commonwealth Games on Thursday morning.
The Larne Grammar PE teacher, who has 11 years of international experience, skippers the 12-strong squad in Glasgow where they will go head-to-head with 2010 gold medal winners New Zealand, hosts Scotland and Malawi’s up-and-coming side.
It’s a proud moment for the 29-year-old Jordanstown woman who boasts real pedigree in local netball circles. Willis isn’t expecting Northern Ireland to be among the medals at the Games, but revealed the team has a “stretch target” of finishing fifth. That in itself would be a huge achievement with powerhouse nations like Australia, England and the Kiwis in the mix.
Willis, née Irvine, has travelled the world with NI. Already in 2014 she has competed in Trinidad and Fiji. In previous years she has played in the Six Nations in Singapore, and featured for the Under-21s in Florida. So, will playing in the relatively familiar surrounds of Glasgow be an advantage when the action begins?
“It’s brilliant, actually, for us,” she said. “It’s a big advantage. We have been to Fiji and Trinadad this year which were both major journeys. It does impact your game. Jetlag and things are a massive factor. Being in Glasgow is great for us. It’s just a short boat journey and a coach trip, so hopefully we’ll have the advantage over some of the other countries who are travelling far.”
Willis’s love affair with netball began as a pupil at Whiteabbey Primary School. “I played in the P6 and P7 team and then one of the coaches from a club who was also taking a team at Mossley spotted me and told me to go along to her junior club at Ballyclare,” she recalls.
“I spent a few years at Ballyclare and then moved up the ranks and started into senior netball and representative stuff from there too. That’s where it all began.”
There have been many highlights along the way - especially on the international stage.
“We went to the World Championships four years ago and we came eighth which was amazing for us given our world rankings. We have moved from 19th in the world down to 11th now so we’re really improving,” she said.
“Beating Samoa in our last pool game was a real highlight. It got us through to the top-eight play-offs, so that was our big achievement.
“We also won the Six Nations Cup which was in Singapore a few years previous to that which was also really good matchplay experience for us. It kind of started the ball rolling with everything.
“At Under-21 level we went to Florida where we came sixth in that world tournament as well. It has built up right from when I was about 19 onwards.”
With the top six Commonwealth teams qualifying automatically and Scotland granted a free route as hosts of the Games, Northern Ireland had to qualifying through the rankings.
As Willis explained: “In the past there used to be a tournament to qualify for major games but it has recently changed and it’s dependent on world rankings. We had to be in the top 11 countries in the world to qualify for the Commonwealths. The cut-off date was last summer. It got to August time and it was confirmed that we were still in the top 11, then we knew we had qualified.”
A lot of hard work, dedication, commitment and sacrifice has gone into getting the team to where it stands in world netball today and Willis revealed there is a real togetherness among the group as the countdown to the Games gathers pace.
“We’re a really close team. We have been training together as a big squad of 19 for maybe two years now. We have had different selections for different tournaments but now the final 12 has been selected we are training flat-out at the minute. It’s pretty much every day. We see each other every day; we know exactly how people play and how people react to things. We are very close and it is coming together well,” she said.
Northern Ireland get their campaign under way with a tricky clash against Malawi (July 24), who finished in fifth spot at the 2010 Delhi Games. The opener against the African outfit at Glasgow’s SECC is a match Willis and the rest of the team are focusing on and aiming to spring a surprise.
“It’s a difficult group but perhaps a more favoured group to the other one,” she said. “We have a few games that we can definitely win and the Malawi game is something we are going to target as possibly an outsider game but, you know, if we win that and we’re doing really well in the group it would be great. Our targets are to beat St Lucia and Scotland. Malawi would be an extra bonus for us. That’s how were looking at the group at the minute.”
She added: “We’ve talked about an overall target at length. Our stretch target is fifth. We think out of the fifth-sixth play-off, if we get into that, we could potentially win it, but we would be happy enough with eighth because that’s where we finished in the World Championships.
“Personally, I’d be happy with sixth or seventh because all the teams are very strong. But if we play well, you never know. Sometimes matches can be really close and it can be a matter of one or two goals. It just depends how we perform in these situations and that’s what we are working on.”