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Lightning

Loughborough Lightning vs Wasps Vitality Netball Superleague match played at the Birmingham Arena (Photo by David Crawford / www.stillsport.com)

How can you possibly surpass the sensation of lifting your first championship trophy?

The answer, at least according to Loughborough Lightning captain Nat Panagarry, is simple.

Emotions ran high after last season’s electric Vitality Netball Superleague (VNSL) final, which saw three-time runners-up Lightning finally emerge victorious in a Grand Final.

But revamped squads alongside a return to traditional match lengths and home-and-away format are guaranteed to make 2022 feel vastly different. Panagarry is more than prepared.

“Win again. That’s how we top last season,” said the skipper, without missing a beat.

“Put the performances out, put on a good show for the fans, that’s the one thing I’m most looking forward to.

“Actually having fans back in the arena, having the noise and intensity.

“But for us to be back-to-back champions, that’s how we top it.”

Lightning will kick off their title defence—and the VNSL season—when they face London Pulse midday on Saturday. Their match is the first of a packed opening weekend which will see all round one and two fixtures played at Birmingham’s Resorts World Arena.

Then they’ll return to Loughborough for their first home game since 2019, after Covid considerations led to the league playing out the 2021 season in just two venues—Wakefield’s Studio 001 and the Copper Box Arena in London.

Tickets are already on sale for the title-holders triumphant homecoming, when they’ll face Celtic Dragons on February 12.

This season will also see a reversion to 15-minute quarters after they were cut to 12 under pandemic protocols.

Then there’s that defending champions moniker to contend with, when it seems everyone is still getting used to that new-trophy smell.

“It is different,” Panagarry admitted. “For us, we’ve never been in this position before. I think for me as a captain it’s reminding the girls that this is a privileged position, this is what we’ve worked for.

“We’d always come upshort and close. We’d always been chasing it. And that’s the exciting part: we’ve won the trophy and now it’s about defending that.

“That’s what we want to do, and as players how we handle that pressure is what we train for. So I’m excited to see how we do deal with it.

“There are going to be ups and downs and injuries along the way, but I know we’ll be able to adapt.”

Last season’s championship squad remains largely intact, but Lightning will welcome a few new faces including defender Emma Bowen, who earned Player of the Season honours with Loughborough’s title-winning U19 side in 2021 and earned her first England U21 call-up.

More youthful energy will come in the form of England U21s teammate and Loughborough geography and sport science student Emma Thacker, 18, who made her international debut with the England U17s in 2018 and joins from the London Pulse pathway.

Panagarry’s Vitality Roses team-mate Fran Williams, joining from Wasps, will try to fill the shoes of stalwart Sam May who announced her retirement last June. Six foot tall South African Zanele Vimbela will join Williams in defence after sitting out last season with an ACL injury.

The biggest change, however, is in leadership: Victoria Burgess moved from assistant coach into the director of netball role after Sara Francis-Bayman announced an 18-month leave of absence.

The former England international will still continue to support the squad as technical director from her new home in Australia, where wife Stacey-Francis Bayman plays for Perth’s West Coast Fever in Suncorp Super Netball.

“It was obviously massive for us as players,” said Panagarry. “We’ve had to adapt, but with Vic there’s a lot of familiarity for us as players.

“I think as a leadership group we’ve also got to step up and make sure we help the younger players coming through. “There have been a few changes, but still a lot of a similar core in there.”

Some similarity at the end of the season sure wouldn’t hurt.

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