by Terry Mallinder
NETBALL: Whatever happens in the final weeks of the 2017 season, the Queensland Firebirds will look to 2018 with great optimism, says star goal attack Gretel Tippett.
The winners of the last two ANZ Championship titles are facing an uphill battle to contest the first ever Super Netball finals.
They are fifth in the eight-team competition, and being three points behind the fourth-placed Magpies they will need everything to go right in the final two rounds.
Tippett, however, said while the focus was on their immediate challenge, there was genuine excitement about the long-term future.
She is confident the one- time domestic netball queens will have laid the foundation for another period of success.
During a season of upheaval after the retirements of Laura Geitz and Clare McMeniman, departure of Kim Ravaillion and knee injury to Mahalia Cassidy, youngsters Kim Jenner, Abigail Latu-Meafou and Jemma Mi Mi have been given all-important game- time by coach Rose Jencke.
"The fact we've been able to play all three young girls is really encouraging," she said.
"Going into next season they will have had that experience under their belt, which is really invaluable for us moving forward. We've got a lot to build on."
The Firebirds have lacked consistency in the new competition, struggling to keep pace with the Giants, Melbourne Vixens, Sunshine Coast Lightning and Magpies.
Tippett said it had been a "learning curve".
"Sport is always evolving," she said. "What we've done for the past two years has worked really well for us.
"But for us to grow, we've got to change up our game style, and continuously improve. This season has been all about that."
The form of Tippett and shooting partner Romelda Aiken has been up and down, but they have spent extra hours on the training court working on their combination.
Tippett, who will look to reclaim her spot in the Diamonds team once the Super Netball season is over, was back to her best against the Adelaide Thunderbirds last week, registering 20 goals from 24 attempts and a game-high 33 feeds.
"It's been a challenge, but a challenge that I've loved," she said. "I've definitely grown the most this year out of the last few years."
Tippett, still only 23, said she was in for the long haul with her local franchise.
"I grew up on the Gold Coast. I'm a Queensland girl," she said. "You never know what's around the corner, but I'm absolutely loving it at the moment."
To have any chance of finishing top four, the Firebirds will need to beat both the ladder-leading Giants tonight and NSW Swifts next week, while also relying on the Magpies to lose both their games to the Fever and Thunderbirds.
If they do miss out, the Firebirds plan to go down swinging by beating a team above them for the first time this season tonight in Sydney.
"That's the plan," Tippett said. "We just want to prepare really well ... then go out there put everything into it."