NETBALL'S cancellation during the COVID-19 pandemic came with a silver lining for Nikiah Thomas.
The North Warrnambool Eagles midcourter spent the enforced layoff working on her strength, skills and speed.
The hard work is paying dividends with the Woodford-based teenager earning praise from experienced Hampden league teammates, including Eagles coach Skye Billings and recruit Maddie Smedts.
Thomas, 16, is expected to feature in the Eagles' open grade side, most likely in wing attack, when the season starts on April 2.
"I would like to cement a spot but sitting on the bench and training with them would still be good," she said.
Billings said Thomas was a "pocket rocket" in the mould of former player Elisha Sobey.
"It will be exciting to watch her grow throughout the year; she is just thriving at training," she said.
A lack of netball the past two years - restrictions ended the 2020 season before it began and last year's campaign was restricted to 12 of a possible 18 games and no finals - has given Thomas a chance to identify areas of improvement.
The Emmanuel College student worked with ex-Old Collegians coach Meagan Forth at Back 'N' Forth netball and dedicated herself on the training track.
"It was bad because you couldn't play netball but the amount of hours you could put in outside of that just to improve for when you went back was good," Thomas said.
"I love the training side of it. Over lockdown I did a lot of weights training to try and improve strength and speed and I brought the ball back into it as we started to get back into netball."
Thomas said having Billings and Smedts, who has returned to the club after time in Geelong and Perth, as on-court mentors was invaluable. Her 17 and under mentors - Kim Wines and Grace Butters - have also played a role in the teenager's development.
"I have worked on my drives from the centre pass. Maddie has helped me with that the past couple of weeks and it's getting better," she said.
"I love having Maddie there. She knows a lot and she's really, really good.
"Kim and Grace are really good and are trying to bring up the juniors and teach him stuff and Skye plays open as well but helps you on the court and off the court."
Thomas, who started at the club when she was 10, believes North Warrnambool Eagles are in the open grade premiership frame.
"Last year we finished fourth (before the season was cancelled prematurely) and having Maddie back will add more strength to the midcourt," she said.
"We should finish up in the top-four and hopefully finishing top-two but we'll see what happens."
First up for the Eagles is the Renae Taylor-coached Port Fairy in Gardens Oval in two weeks' time.
Thomas, who is striving for Hampden junior representative teams in 2022 after playing at the Western Region tournament last year, said she was eager to put the hard work into practice.
"There's a bit of excitement and a bit of nerves," she said.
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