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How Loughborough Lightning overcame adversity to win title

Journey is an often-overused word but every time a Loughborough Lightning player said it when reflecting on their 2023 Netball Super League season it felt right.

Lightning entered the season as last year’s losing finalists and ended the regular season as runners-up before overcoming a brave London Pulse side 57-48 in the Grand Final to win their second Super League crown.

But that does not even tell half of their story.

Their journey starts just two minutes into the 2022 Grand Final.

“Last year was heart-breaking, it felt like it was taken away from us,” Loughborough Lightning Head Coach Vic Burgess remembers.

With a sickening scream, goal attack Ella Clark dropped to the floor and everyone watching on knew the diagnosis that followed – she had ruptured her ACL.

Clark won the hearts of the netball world as she returned to the sidelines to cheer on her team despite knowing her Commonwealth Games and 2023 NSL season were over before they had even started.

Lightning’s slim hopes of beating an undefeated and well-drilled Manchester Thunder side also ended as a shell-shocked Loughborough ultimately went down 60-53.

As her side’s season drew to a sad close, Burgess knew not to panic as little with her Lightning side needed changing.

Clark stepped into a coaching role with Burgess this season, and is now able to add the title of Netball Super League-winning coach to her impressive CV.

Burgess added: “Ella Clark has been working with us this season as well as going through her injury.

“She has been great. It has been great to have her knowledge, her support, her experience and apply that through to the shooters.”

The off-season brought a chance to reflect and rebuild, especially for Fran Williams.

The goal defence was left out of England’s squad for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and used that pain to fuel her season.

Williams ended the 2023 campaign as Player of the Final, having also racked up several Player of the Match awards during the season.

The difference between Williams this year and last year is incredible and reflects the mental fortitude she has needed to bounce back.

She said: “For me, this season has been about what kind of netball I want to play and where I am going to win the ball.

“I have always felt like I have read the game well and been smart, but now it is about me saying ‘I want to win ball and get those key intercepts.’”

No one’s journey has been more keenly followed and supported than that of Lightning’s talismanic captain Nat Panagarry.

Last year, her wife Katie was diagnosed with Stage 4b Clear Cell cancer and Panagarry bravely opted to keep playing and captaining Lightning alongside supporting her wife.

There have been many emotional moments for Panagarry this season, with Katie being declared cancer free in April undoubtedly the highlight.

All of those emotions were clear to see when the final whistle went, just as Panagarry had predicted at the start of the campaign when she said: “If we lift that trophy this year, I will be inconsolably crying with the amount of tears and energy that will have gone into it.”

How right she was. The images of Panagarry celebrating her second title win as captain will go down in netball history – as will the final itself.

Lightning took on the regular season table-toppers with a passionate Pulse-heavy crowd and a six-goal deficit in the first half each adding a pinch more adversity.

But with what Lightning have already overcome this season, no-one should have been surprised to see them turn it around.

Their star shooter Mary Cholhok clicked into gear in the second half, even producing an intercept late on.

Her journey? She was able to bring over her six-year-old son Jackson from Uganda to live with her after three seasons without him.

Cholhok’s story has not just been one of a family reunited, it has also shown the strength and sacrifices mothers in sport go through.

Another player who helped turn the tide was Beth Cobden, who came on at wing defence in the second half.

There have been plenty of times when Cobden could have walked away from netball. She has suffered three ACL injuries during her career and a calf injury ruled her out of England’s Commonwealth Games squad.

Inclusion in England squads later in 2022 followed but injury still kept Cobden from taking to the court and those issues may have left her thinking her chance would not come this NSL season.

Together with her Lightning family, however, Cobden has worked her way back, featuring for the first time in Lightning’s final match of the regular season.

And she has now closed out the 2023 campaign with the greatest prize of all, a Grand Final winner’s medal.

Williams said: “There are so many individuals I could name who have had their challenges and their journeys this year. Honestly, the battles our squad has faced.

“But we have come together, we have supported each other, we have turned up as our best selves every single day.

“We were all on this mission to regain the trophy and we’ve done that.”

Victory never tasted so sweet.

Loughborough Lightning lift the Netball Super League trophy

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