Being a shooter in netball carries extra responsibility. Masses of it.
Team sports tend to be structured so that anyone can help with the scoring. Sure, there’s extra expectation on certain positions, but defenders can score goals in soccer, number 11 batsmen can smash runs in cricket, and rugby props can score tries too (even in World Cup finals). That shared responsibility is the same in basketball, hockey, softball, Aussie Rules, rugby league … you name it.
But it isn’t part of netball. In netball, keeping the scoreboard ticking over falls squarely on the shoulders of only two players in each team.
For the last decade, Maria Tutaia has helped carry that shooting load for her country. As New Zealand’s premier goal attack, and the best in the world according to some judges, she understands that her position is one of special pressure. It’s for heroes or villains. And, like any shooter, she’s been both.
The highs have included nailing a gold medal-winning shot against the Aussies at the 2010 Commonwealth Games. (You may recall Temepara Bailey being especially pleased about that.)
The lows include missing her target with the 2011 World Cup on the line. It’s brutal stuff.
For much of her career, Maria had Irene van Dyk alongside her to deal with the challenges in the shooting circle. More recently, Cathrine Latu has been sharing the glory and the strain with her.
But, with the Netball World Cup less than a month away and with the Australians looking very tough to beat, Maria finds herself adapting to fresh shooting buddies and, as a result, shouldering even more responsibility.
We sat down to see how she’s handling all that and to find out why she began shooting goals in the first place.
I understand you weren’t a shooter when you started playing netball?
At the very beginning, when I was eight, I was a wing attack. I only played a couple of games there, but I really enjoyed it. Then one of our shooters got injured and we had no subs left. Because I was the tallest on court, I got chucked the goal shoot bib.
I was shooting from my chest and had to add a bit of a jump so that the ball had enough juice on it. But I landed my first three goals from just inside the circle and I was hooked. I never got given the WA bib after that.
Dad bought me a goal post when I was nine and he’d help me shoot on the lawn. He attached a broom to the front of the rim, so that the ball had to go up and over, as opposed to just skimming in flat. So you had to shoot like an upside down ‘J’.
My brothers would help me out, too, by defending against me and having shoot-outs. One of them, Salo, is over two metres tall now. And he’s not lanky. He’s properly built and plays rugby in France. Then another brother, Tyson, is my height, and so is Dad. So there was plenty of good competition.
Can you tell us a bit more about your family?
Mum (Niukini) and Dad (Fuisami) were raised in Samoa. They adopted three kids there and later had another four of their own. Two were born in Samoa and the last two, including me, were born in New Zealand. I’m the youngest of the seven.
My parents moved to New Zealand in 1983. Mum’s sister lived in Tokoroa, so the family set up there. Salo was born the following year and I came along a few years later.
My parents stayed with my aunty until Dad found work in forestry, while Mum looked after the kids. I’m proud of being born in Tokoroa and I still call that home, even though we shifted to Auckland when I was one because Dad landed a job up here in construction. We still have family in Tokoroa, though, and get back there pretty often.
And can you run us through your name?
It’s Solonaima Maria Tuta’ia. I’m named after both of my grandmothers. Solonaima is my mother’s mother. And Maria is my Dad’s mother. Actually, it’s Malia. Hmmm… I don’t know why my mother changed that?
Anyway, when I first started primary school, my teacher couldn’t pronounce Solonaima. So she asked if she could call me Maria. And it just stuck.
It’s only been in the last five years that Heemi (Katene-Hill), who does a lot of the announcing at netball games, has been introducing me on to the court as ‘Solonaima Maria Tutaia’. Things have filtered through a little bit from that.
I don’t mind when people use either. I love both my names.
How’d you like being the youngest and having some, very, big brothers? And what sports were you playing as a kid?
I absolutely loved being the youngest and I was a hard-core tomboy growing up. I played every sport with a ball or anything that involved chucking or kicking or rolling around and tackling.
I played a lot of touch, volleyball, rugby, cricket, and I loved softball. It’s probably not an official sport, but I did my time on the Street Fighter spacies game too. Netball I just fell into because all my mates were playing. And obviously that’s the sport that all the girls play in primary school.
My brothers didn’t take it easy on me. They played rough and treated me like I was another boy. So that was really cool. Well … it was pretty cool.
Did you take any of those other sports seriously?
I played basketball for Auckland until under 17s. Netball nationals and basketball nationals both fell in the school holidays though, so I had to choose. I went with netball, basically because all of my friends were playing.
If you were writing your netball job description now, what might that say?
Put the ball through the hoop.
Be a great link between the centre, wing attack and the goal shoot.
Entertain people and put them on the edge of their seats.
Speaking of … I reckon sometimes you could get closer to the hoop, but you just shoot from where you are anyway. What’s that about?
Oh, you mean when I get tired and can’t be bothered passing the ball around anymore? (Laughs)
Nah, when I’m in the zone – it’s so weird. And I can’t really describe this feeling – but I don’t see the goal shooter, I don’t remember anything else that has happened on court, I don’t see the centre or wing attack, I don’t hear the crowd or the buzzer or anything. It’s just me and the hoop.
And the broom?
Yeah, and the broom. (Laughs)
Nah, even if the shooter is under the goal post by herself and I could easily pass it to her, I don’t see that when I’m running hot. And, for me, the challenge is to get myself into that mind frame each game – which I’m still working on.
What about those occasions when you’re not hot?
As a shooter, you feel when your shot is off and you try and tweak it. And, while I’m tweaking, I might attempt to go tighter to the goal.
But, if I’m missing my shots, I still need ball in hand. I’m not a player who shies away or doesn’t want the ball or doesn’t want to shoot.
For me to get back in the game, I need to still keep shooting. Now, that could be to the detriment of my team, but for me to get back in the right mind frame I need to just keep turning and shooting.
(Note: Maria is mostly hot. Despite regularly shooting from long range, while her goal shoot aims to get closer to the posts, Maria landed 79.5% of her shots this season for the SKYCITY Mystics).
To me on court you look quite quick, especially when getting clear to take centre passes. But your Mystics trainer suggested you’re not a total star in speed testing. How quick are you?
Sam (the trainer) told you that? Really? I look forward to catching up with him.
I loved 100m sprints as a kid. In primary school and intermediate, I mostly came first. But once I got to high school there were a fair few quicker.
I guess, on court, though, you see the space and you go. Whereas in testing you know what lines you have to run. I’m more of an athlete who adapts to situations. Straight line running kind of bores me.
It obviously helps to be fast in testing, but what really counts is having the goods on-court.
You’ve been in the Silver Ferns for a decade now. What are you working on in your own game?
I’m always trying to be a formidable shooter and keep my shooting percentages up. On defence, I need to get some ball – anywhere on court.
Then we have some new shooters in the Silver Ferns, so we’re just trying to nail those links between each other. We don’t have a lot of time, so I’m trying to make the most of each training session and work out how far I can push Malia (Paseka) or Bailey (Mes). I want to know what passes they like receiving. That sort of stuff.
Having new shooters changes the ball game, as I have been so used to having Catty (Cathrine Latu) at the back. We know each other inside out, so this is a big – and good – challenge.
(Note: Maria’s regular shooting partner at franchise and international level, Cat Latu, missed selection for the Silver Ferns for the World Cup).
How is your mate Cat doing?
It was a shock for all of us, but I know Catty is training extremely hard just in case something happens. I mean, look at us at Comm Games, where we were down to one shooter (from the four in the squad).
We all feel for her, but I know she’s very supportive of us and what we’re trying to achieve. She’s not at home feeling sorry for herself. She’s still making those gains and, if anything happens, she’s set.
I do miss her a lot. But also know that she’s not giving up, which is huge for me.
You’ve gone from being the teenage star to being one of the most experienced players. And, at franchise level, with the Mystics, you’re the captain. What’s it like leading a team?
It’s been an experience of a lot of highs and a lot of lows. My first year as captain (in 2013) didn’t go very well. But, in saying that, I felt we were a really tight-knit team. Regardless of the scoreboard, we were able to keep things really tight and work for each other and I take a lot of heart from that. When you’re losing week-in, week-out, you could easily see players give up, but we didn’t have that at all in my first year and I was really proud of that.
After that, it’s just been about growing. I’ve always been a true believer in having a team of 12 and everybody having a say. Everyone is on the same level. As captain, you’re no bigger than anyone else.
So it’s been fun, and I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had the best bunch of girls to be able to share the experience with.
Lastly, you’re the much-loved, youngest daughter in a large Samoan family, and you’ve also pushed the boundaries, at least for some people, with some of your photos that have appeared in the media. How do you juggle the conservative and not-so-conservative elements of your world?
I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities come my way and Mum and Dad have taught us that you should grab every opportunity with two hands. If you believe it’s right for you, then you go ahead and do it.
I’ve been really lucky that I’ve had opportunities to explore a little more about myself. And get to know myself some more. And to work out what I can and can’t handle.
I’m a very proud Samoan – and I am conservative in some ways – but I also feel like I’ve developed a different side of Maria that nobody really knew. I think I’m a really fun person and I like for people to see that and know that it’s OK for Polynesian women to explore different pathways.
Of course, you try to be respectful, but it’s OK to be conservative and to have another side of yourself as well.
Solonaima Maria Tuta’ia
Silver Ferns and Northern Mystics netballer
Tokoroa born – February 18, 1987
Height: 188cm (6ft 2in)
Schools: Chaucer Primary, Blockhouse Bay Intermediate, Lynfield College, Mt Albert Grammar
Positions: Goal Attack, Goal Shoot
Matches: Silver Ferns 92, Northern Mystics 85, WBOP Magic 31
Goals: Silver Ferns 1,633 (from 2,092 attempts at 78%), Northern Mystics 1,880 (from 2,415 attempts at 78%), WBOP Magic 566 (from 724 attempts at 78%)
Brothers and sisters: Rosa (48), Masalosalo (45), Viona (35), Tyson (34), Loterina (33), Salo (31)
Note: The Silver Ferns have home games against Fiji (July 23) and South Africa (July 26 and 28), before the Netball World Cup in Sydney (August 7-16).