The Black Sticks Tyro And Her Little School That Roared
By David Leggat, a freelance sports journalist
There are two prongs to the success story of Olivia Shannon, New Zealand hockey’s new teenage talent.
One is the individual: the 17-year-old who has just graduated to the Black Sticks squad for a momentous 2019, with the launch of the worldwide Pro League, featuring the top nine hockey nations.
The other is the team, but not the Black Sticks. It’s about her Iona College side, based in Havelock North.
It’s the story of the ‘951 Club’, a young woman blessed with uncommon sporting gifts, and of the small school voice that roared.
To the player first. Shannon didn’t pick up a hockey stick until just five years ago.
She loved her rugby – still does – but figured she wouldn’t be big enough. Spurred on by family friends, she tried hockey. Feel safe to hazard a guess that rugby’s loss is hockey’s major gain.
A striker, or midfielder when on school duty, Shannon is blessed with pace, strong skills, and a sharp eye for goal – all backed by a degree of fearlessness in her play.
This year, Shannon helped Central win their second consecutive national under 18 title, and she won MVP of the tournament.
Then it was on to the Federation Cup for national secondary schoolgirls, where she was hugely influential in Iona College winning the title.
And, finally, there was the National Hockey League, the domestic big time, where Shannon made it a three-peat, winning the MVP in her first year.
“I thought they’d read the wrong name out,’’ Shannon says of the last of the MVP honours.
Cue an email from Hockey New Zealand. Suddenly, with a couple of giant leaps, Shannon – still with one full year at high school to come – is set to play against the world’s best, alongside others she had until now admired from afar.
“I scrawled through the email, skim-read a bit and thought I’d misread it,’’ Shannon says. “Then it was ‘Oh my gosh’, and I started screaming and crying. It was pretty insane.
“Then Mum and Dad asked ‘Are you sure you read that properly’?”
Shannon is now living in Auckland, training with the Black Sticks for an upcoming home series against Chile.
Greg Nicol, the HNZ national pathway manager who’s had much to do with Central hockey, says Shannon is incredibly quick with the ball and has a great eye for goal.
“She pulls the trigger in the circle as quick as anyone I’ve seen for someone of her age. She has a real presence and an attitude in the circle that is second to none.’’
Nicol should know. The former South African international was a prolific goal-scorer and double Olympian before moving to New Zealand in the early 2000s.
Shannon’s MVP awards at the national under 18 and Federation Cup tournaments “didn’t jump off the screen as surprising’’ Nicol says. “But to go on and do it at the NHL is quite exceptional for her age.’’
Nicol is reluctant to compare Shannon’s playing style to former top New Zealand players.
“’It’s more the influence and impact she has on a game,” he says. “I certainly haven’t seen a schoolgirl with that ability to impact results that easily. She can flick a game in one instant.’’
For someone who has been playing just five years, it’s a remarkable rise.
Now to the second part of this story.
Iona College – with a roll of about 300 students, and four hockey teams – doesn’t roll off the tongue among those schools with longstanding sporting pedigree.
They had the silver medallists in the under 18 novice coxed four at rowing’s Maadi Cup this year; there was a team of national triathlon champions four years ago, and the occasional swimming and surf lifesaving success. But it’s hockey that Iona’s director of sport Hallie Sullivan calls the school’s biggest sports achiever.
In a sense, the Iona success is partly a happy coincidence of timing, the sort of thing which might only last a year, or, as Iona hope, could run on a while yet.
A few years back, a group of students, who turned out to be gifted hockey players, all started at Iona over a two-year period. When those players graduated to years 12 and 13 this year, the cream had risen to the top.
From this year’s success was born what the players, and school, affectionately call the ‘951 Club’.
Two years ago, Iona finished ninth overall in secondary schoolgirls hockey. Last year they finished fifth overall. Shannon didn’t know whether they could top that.
But they did, beating local rivals Napier Girls High School in the Federation Cup final in Whangarei in September.
“This year we had an amazing team. When I started, we were in the bottom tier. But the core group of girls have all grown up together,’’ Shannon says.
They included captain Arabella Sheild, who’s in the national under 21 squad, and exchange student Nika Hansen, who’d been in the German under 16 squad. That helped.
Hansen has returned home, Sheild is finishing school shortly, but Shannon – a boarder whose family lives at Waituna West, near Feilding and about three hours away from Havelock – will be back next year.
“Things haven’t happened overnight. It’s been a work in progress and we’re lucky all the stars have aligned, really,’’ Sullivan says. “We’ll be in a rebuilding phase next year, but by the same token we won’t be right out of it. We’ve got some talented kids here.’’
Sullivan affectionately describes Shannon – who scored a whopping 75 goals this year for Iona alone – as “one of those annoying kids who’s good at everything’’.
“She’s an exceptional tennis player, and good at anything she puts her hands to – athletics, touch. And she’s a pretty focused student, which is a credit to her and her parents.’’
Shannon is under no illusions about the future. “Obviously hockey isn’t going to last forever and you’re only one injury away from not playing.’’ A career in sports science or nutrition holds appeal for her.
The Black Sticks have lost a cluster of top echelon players in the last couple of years – the likes of most-capped Emily Gaddum, world class midfielder Kayla Whitelock, penalty corner maestro Anita McLaren and attacker Gemma McCaw.
They lost their way at this year’s World Cup but are still ranked sixth in the world.
Shannon won’t be the youngest New Zealand international – former striker Charlotte Harrison took that honour making her debut at 16 in 2005 – and it’s always a fraught business trying to crystal ball-gaze on how far an early-burning talent will go.
But the signs are encouraging, especially given the kudos bestowed on her level-headedness.
“She doesn’t get too down on herself when she makes a mistake. She doesn’t worry too much about what’s in front of her,’’ Nicol says.
As for Iona College, a big year beckons – as it does for all defending champions. Sullivan tells of the running joke at the school tournament in Whangarei.
“People would say ‘Whereabouts is Iona College?’ We’d say Havelock North. ‘Oh, where’s that?’’’
By the end of that week, no one needed to ask.