Last season, Grangetown Netball Club had the benefit of the services of Gemma Sole, a Scottish international whose father David was a fine sportsman in his own right, having captained his country to Rugby Union Grand Slam success in 1990. But Gemma was by no means the only member of the squad with an impressive sporting heritage.
Whilst Grangetown’s Goal Keeper Jennifer Mrozik‘s father played a high standard of Australian Rules football, her maternal grandfather Ernie Ashton, had a career in Rugby League that resulted in fourteen appearances for England or Great Britain, as well as a meeting with King George VI at the 1948 Challenge Cup final, in which Ernie helped Wigan to an 8-3 success over Bradford Northern. It was actually the first game of Rugby League to be televised, and also the first to be attended by a reigning monarch.
“My Grandfather passed away shortly after we [Jen and her twin sister Hannah] were born, but I know that he held us both in his arms. I remember my Mum telling us that he was a well-known face around Wigan, who went into coaching and ran pubs after he’d finished playing. Apparently when he died, as well as the news being featured in the papers, there was also a procession in the town, so he must have been a popular man by the sound of things.
“I’ve got a lovely box of things like his glasses, press cuttings, family photos and cards; souvenirs from his tours, special pens, caps, and a fantastic picture of him shaking King George’s hand. There are lots of lovely letters that he’d written to my Nana when he was away on tour as well. Back in those days they would travel by ship, so he’d be swanning round Australia while Nana was stuck at home trying to manage things with four daughters! It’s sad but I don’t really remember Nana either because she passed away when my sister and I were only three.
“Mum never made a big thing about Grandad being well-known, but when we were five or six, I played a video and the tape got chewed up in the machine. It turned out that the video was of Grandad playing rugby and I remember Mum being really upset....
“Dad grew up in Australia; he was a lifeguard and a fantastic swimmer as well as playing a lot of Aussie Rules. The name Mrozik comes from eastern Europe. Dad’s family were of German descent, but his own Dad had grown up in Poland. After the [Second World] War, my Dad and his sister emigrated to Australia. I think they had three choices, America, Canada or Australia—they actually opted for Canada but ended up going to Australia.”
For Jennifer Mrozik, the start of her netball career was many miles away from where her father had enjoyed his sporting youth. “My first local team was actually Coatham [in Redcar]. When Hannah and I were younger we were always very sporty: athletics, netball, cross country. During school I was more of a runner, whereas my sister was always more talented at netball. I can recall playing against Ria [Small] and Faye [Summerhill] when Coatham played Grangetown—they may have been a bit bitchy about us... they don’t come across like that do they...?!!
“I am joking, by the way!
“We had a bit of a break from sport at college; we still went to the gym, but we were focussing on our GCSEs at the time and decided to take time out from netball. Looking back, I feel like I missed out on learning and improving a lot of technical netball skills and taking that break is a bit of a regret, especially when you see the likes of Ria, Vicky [Rees] and Faye who are such skilful netballers.
“I then went to Northumbria University—on a bit of a whim actually; I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was studying Psychology, because it was the subject in which I got the best grade at A level. When I arrived, I didn’t know how just how big netball was at the University. I suppose Bath or somewhere like that might be bigger, but there was actually a very strong netball set-up at Northumbria. I decided to go along to training, even though I didn’t even have the right trainers at the time. I just thought it would be good to get involved from a social point of view as well as getting back into sport.
“I was selected to play for the third or second team, but at the time the first team was mainly made up of players from Oaksway’s elite squad. I should thank their manager because there was some issue to do with the timing of training; Oaksway wanted their players to prioritise the club and their manager basically pulled all of them out of the Uni squad. That left an opening for me, and all the other girls who moved up as a result. Anita Navin spotted me and maybe she saw a bit of potential; she gave me a chance and from there the whole of my time at University revolved around netball—my degree was almost secondary.
“The whole ethos of being part of a sports team was massively character-building; I’d do weights at six o’clock in the morning, train Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday, and there were lots of social events as well. I started playing for the talent squad in the Northumbria Super League and it went from there really. I had a bit of a break when I had my daughter, but I really missed the netball. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get back to playing the level I had been, but I e-mailed Gel, gave her my background and she invited me along to Grangetown. I’m a big believer in fate and that everything happens for a reason and after I joined things just seemed to come together. Ria and Faye, who are both younger than me, were already really strong players. Lesley [Mouat] joined at the same time as me, and from playing Northern League and Regional, the club was able to push through to Prem.”
Asking anyone to identify their strengths is a question usually reserved for a job interview; but I asked Jen anyway! “My main strengths are probably my athleticism; and I work hard on my fitness. I’ll keep going until I collapse or try to run through a wall to get the ball; and I also think I’ve got some presence on court as well. I’m vocal and I think it’s really important as a defender to have that presence and make sure the shooter knows you’re there. I would like to think I’m quite a good team player and try to encourage the rest of the girls—I just hope I don’t pull too many faces or curse too many times.”
The Grangetown defensive unit is built around Jen, Vicky and Katie Walton; and it was interesting to get Jen’s assessment of the various combinations and how the defenders try to deal with the different attacking styles in Prem 2. “Vicky is a fantastic netballer; she’s our captain and has so much experience. There’s a different relationship dynamic because I suppose Vicky carries me at times and directs me in a lot of ways. Certainly when I first came into the squad I relied on Vicky to encourage me and teach me, and I’m not saying I’m Vicky to Katie—Katie’s a fantastic keeper in her own right—but I try and give her as much encouragement as I can.
“There are so many different types of shooter at Prem level and you have days when things just don’t go how you would like, but we’re able to swap players around and mix things up Certainly being able to change and adapt my style during a game is something I want to learn about and work on.
“Vicky and I tend to man-mark a lot, but perhaps with me and Katie our strength lies in zone work because we’re both tall; and if the opposition has a big, tall shooter, I am able to move forward because Katie’s just as big, and I know it’s safe to leave her to get that ball.
“One of the toughest girls I’ve come up against was a shooter who played for Telford, who I think were promoted into Prem 1 a couple of years ago. She was only young, but very tall and really difficult to get the ball from; her arm span was just absolutely ridiculous. With young players, normally it’s quite easy to get into their head, to rile or intimidate them, but this girl just didn’t budge. She just laughed and as a defender there’s nothing worse. There’s a girl at Telstars who’s well over six feet and really difficult to mark. After a while I think Katie and I were able to find a way of dealing with her, but when I first came up against her, I found it really hard.
“We also played against Jamaican national side before last year’s Commonwealth Games—they were unbelievable. Their shooter is called Romelda Aiken and she’s something like six feet five, and I remember being told: ‘Just get on your toes a bit Jen’; but I’d have needed stilts or springs in my feet. She was really difficult to mark. I took the time to watch some of the matches involving the Sunshine Girls [at the Commonwealth Games] and seeing how the defence would sometimes drop two on one, or looking at the off-the-ball work, the build-up round the circle and how to pressure the feed into the shooter because once that feed’s on there’s nothing really you can do against someone who’s that tall. It’s about trying to hassle the attackers and making sure they don’t have the set-up; that they’re not standing where they want to stand. If you can take a player out of their comfort zone and they miss a shot, it just puts more pressure on the next shot.
“Gel [Williams, Grangetown Head Coach] always says if you can get an intercept, a block or stop a run three times, that’s when someone’s head starts to go. Obviously if they score two or three goals in quick succession, that can have an effect on the defenders as well; it’s not a nice feeling and it can be quite hard to compose yourself and get back into the game. It’s the same if you’re on the wrong end of a few calls from the umpire, but you just have to learn to manage it really.
“If the ball’s going down the court really quickly, it’s obviously harder to get the opportunity to intercept, but you can try and create situations by maybe having an awareness of a player’s position and almost tempt the opposition into making a pass that you’re actually confident you can get to. One of the key things is that you know the centre will be looking for the wing attack, and it’s being prepared to run out for the ball—and that’s something I’d like to work on. I tend to stick to my player a lot and stay in the circle because there’s nothing more embarrassing than running out and having the ball lobbed over your head to give the shooter an easy shot.
So is an interception as good as a goal?
“In many ways I think an interception is better than a goal. The good shooters will score all day, but when you get an interception it can completely change every player’s state of mind.”
As well as her physical skills, Jen is able to use her knowledge and experience of psychology to help her game, as well as offering support and advice to some of the younger members of the club.
“I’ve always been interested in psychology in sport,” she explained, “and I do try and apply certain techniques to my training or to games. I also took a few sessions with the kids before the nationals this summer.
“I think with psychology it’s about whether you want to buy into it, if you want to use it; because most interventions are not going to work if you don’t believe they will. You’ve got to match the intervention to the player but I do try and focus on mindfulness techniques... of being ‘in the moment’—something I think I’ve always done quite naturally actually.
“There are a lot of famous athletes who have that rock solid belief that they’re better than their opponents, that they’re going to succeed no matter what. I suppose if you have that kind of unshakeable belief, you’re halfway there.
The recently-ended Netball World Cup offered the world’s best players the opportunity to showcase their skills on the sport’s biggest stage (including four girls who have played at Grangetown), although for those relying on terrestrial television, live coverage was sadly limited: “I tried to watch some of the World Cup but I don’t have Sky, so I had to settle for videos that were posted on Facebook. It’s quite surreal when you watch the likes of Kielle Connolly from Trinidad & Tobago, and you see the pictures of Hayley [Mulheron], Gemma [Sole] and Jo [Pettitt] being out there in Sydney and what a fantastic experience it was for them; and it’s just such a cool thing to say that I’ve played with those girls at Grangetown!
“I only played once alongside Hayley but that was when we beat the top of the league [Viper Blades]. Everything just gelled that day, but I’d actually been poorly on the Thursday and Friday and hadn’t eaten a thing. I turned up on the Sunday and said that I hadn’t been well. I was drinking a can of coke to rehydrate, and Hayley said: ‘What are you doing? You shouldn’t be drinking that?!’ I told her I’d been really poorly and she just replied: ‘So why are you playing then?’ She’s always straight to the point, but I just came back with ‘Well I really want to play with you!’ She didn’t really have a response to that; she just laughed I think!
“I think that’s an example that you can’t always tell how things are going to work out; that was probably the worst preparation ever, but I had a really good game. Hayley and I played really well together. I think they [Viper Blades] came up thinking the game would be a bit of a walkover but in the end it was a really convincing win for us—and a really good experience.
The new season is now a little over a month away, and training at the team’s new matchday home, Middlesbrough Sports Village is well underway. It’s a time to consider what the future may hold... not just for the forthcoming season, but also the years to come: “I get really anxious about what I’m going to do after netball,” Jen admitted. “I’m hoping I’ve got another five years at this level, but I don’t know what I’ll do once it’s all over. I don’t think I would want to be involved in managing a team... it’s so stressful; and I’d know all I would want to do was be out on that court.
“We’re all training hard; we’re all ready and up for it. Hopefully we’ll get some support from the Scottish girls; we’d certainly benefit from having more availability in terms of player back up and they do make a real difference when they’re on court.
“I do think we’re capable of getting to Prem 1. My only reservation is having the depth in the squad and the ability to rotate players; if someone was to get injured, I’d worry that we’re already pretty thin on the ground, but we’ve definitely got the talent and some of the kids that are coming through are absolutely amazing. Physically they’ve still got some growing to do, but the skill, the thinking, the attitude they have is fantastic.
“For me the club has got Prem 1 written all over it. We’ve got great facilities and perhaps we just need a couple of good early results, and maybe a little bit of luck to go our way, but we definitely have the ability and desire.
“And away from the court, I can see Grangetown making an impact on the community in terms of the culture of the club; the work that Gel and the girls do is incredible, and having women as role models in the north east who are fit and athletic would be brilliant—honestly the potential here is huge.
“I have made some loyal and supportive friends at the club; they have helped me through some difficult times, which I really appreciate. We have a good time in each other’s company; my face often aches from laughing so much after a few hours with the squad. The jokes are often at my expense, but that’s got to be a good thing, right?!!”