Straight out of high school, Carys Stythe never expected to play a part in the Mystics’ defense of their national championship title this season, but she’s taking the opportunity to learn from the best defenders in the game.
In the Mystics dressing room, there is a place on the bench that has always been reserved for a netball legend.
Carys Stythe had no idea the history of this space when she sat it ahead of his very first ANZ Premiership game this season. The nervous 18-year-old had never entered the champions’ dressing room at the Trusts Arena.
Mystics head coach Helene Wilson walked over to Stythe and asked, “Do you realize you’re sitting in a very special seat? This is where Maria always used to sit.
By Maria, she meant Maria Folau, Centurion of the Silver Ferns, who played nine seasons for the Mystics.
It meant more to Stythe than Wilson could have imagined. At home, she has a precious photo of herself, still in elementary school, under Folau’s arm during a netball holiday program. Stythe is dressed in her club uniform: “I was obsessed with club netball at the time, so I wore my uniform everywhere.”
Folau has become one of his netball heroes. “I can’t even put into words the feeling of sitting in the seat of someone I idolized growing up,” Stythe says. “So I soaked in every moment sitting there.”
For Wilson, it’s a moment she won’t forget either. “Someone who was very special to our franchise was still sitting there, and I think Carys will be special to the Mystics as well,” she says.
Stythe made an unexpected debut on the pitch for the 2021 ANZ Premiership titleholders at the very start of this season; the slender and athletic defender from the Northern Wonders side arrives in a Mystics formation hard hit by Covid.
She even took the field on goal defense in that opener against the Magic and immediately made her mark – claiming one interception, two wins and four deflections.
It was far from the end for last year’s top school netballer in the nation. Stythe played the first five games of the season for the Mystics, as others fell ill, before being taken down by the virus herself.
After a fairy tale start to his elite netball career in his first year after school, Stythe already looks to be an exciting prospect in the New Zealand game. And she takes the opportunity to learn with both hands of the most successful defensive trio in the country.
“It’s crazy – I can’t believe this is happening to me,” she said, her eyes widening. “But I know how lucky I am; it’s the dream of every little netball girl in New Zealand.
Wilson has been watching Stythe closely since she started high school at Glendowie College six netball seasons ago.
“I’ve been stalking her for so long, but I don’t think Carys knows about it,” Wilson says. “People don’t realize that as an ANZ coach you’re always watching. It’s part of your job to see who’s passing.
Wilson is renowned for scouting young talent and funneling them through the system in Auckland. Perhaps its most famous prodigy is Silver Ferns shooter Grace Nweke.
“It’s part of our culture at The Mystics to grow people. The youngsters are sponges and they bring very good energy and drive to our team,” says Wilson.
When Wilson first spotted her, Stythe reportedly stood head and shoulders above the other kids on the court, as she has always been tall for her age.
She is now 190cm tall – only 3cm shorter than Nweke – but “as exciting as Grace was at the same age”, says Wilson.
“She’s got a nice size and she’s very coordinated for such a tall girl. She’s definitely not the complete product – there are a lot of areas in her understanding of the game that she still needs to improve. But her footwork , his speed, his ability to move, pass and catch are actually really solid for someone so young.
“But she also showed maturity beyond her years. The youngsters are being thrown a lot of carrots in front of them, but she’s made some decisions to really succeed in the long run.
Stythe took her first steps into senior netball last year, when she was still in Year 13 at St Kentigern College (where she went for her final year). She joined the Marvels in the National Netball League, one tier below the ANZ Premiership.
She had been part of the New Zealand U21 squad for the upcoming Junior World Cup in Fiji (which was ultimately cancelled). “And I wanted to improve my game, because I knew it was another step up from school netball,” Stythe said.
She started on the bench for the Marvels but worked her way into the starting lineup of the team that won the championship. At the end of the year, she was named the Mystics’ top emerging player.
Stythe also played a pivotal role in the Auckland side that won the inaugural New Zealand U18 Championships and were crowned National Secondary School Player of the Year at the annual Netball NZ Awards.
Wilson then invited Stythe to be the Mystics’ sparring partner for 2022, meaning she could experience a professional team environment while learning from three defensive masters of the game – Sulu Fitzpatrick, Phoenix Karaka and Michaela Sokolich-Beatson.
“They have such an amazing background and they’re so good to me,” Stythe says. “I’m stressed about going to the pitch, but they guide me and calm me down. If I make a mistake, Sulu is behind me saying, ‘Don’t worry; and after’.
“I love watching them from the side, because I have the best seat in the arena. Watching Su and Fi in the circle work together is like a movie. I’m like, ‘Don’t get on top of me, I’ love the view from here’.”
As a kid who “jumped on the bandwagon” and played netball because his friends were, Stythe always wanted to play center.
“But when I grew up I thought I’d better make good use of my size. In rehearsals I specialized in goalkeeping and goal defense, which I liked more because that I was touching the ball more often,” she says.
“I don’t think I could handle the pressure of being a shooter. I don’t know how they do it.
She is the tallest in her family – although her parents are both 1.8m (6ft). “Basically my height helped me here, so I’m really lucky,” Stythe says. His parents also gave Stythe his lyrical name – “My father is Welsh; Carys means love,” she says.
Stythe is very close to her family, and although she lives in West Auckland (along with fellow Marvels players Addi Albert-James, Jessie Taylor and Holly Mather), she often returns home to Glendowie in the ‘is.
She has a special bond with her 12-year-old sister, Isla, who has autism. Isla is also the reason Stythe wants to work with children with special needs.
“I LOVE her. She’s so funny and really cool. She had dance class and I was going to help her, or I was going on her dates and taking care of her and her friends,” Stythe said.
“She sometimes comes to my games, with her headphones and chips, and she usually falls asleep. She has a service dog and uses it as a pillow so I can spot them immediately in a crowd. I like knowing she’s there.
Stythe started the year studying occupational therapy full-time, but didn’t realize how intense managing the workloads of sports and academics would be.
“I didn’t think I would be needed so much. [by netball] as I was,” says Stythe. “So I will start studying part-time teaching next semester.”
She had help from former Silver Fern Debbie Christian, who is the national relations manager at the New Zealand Netball Players Association.
“Whenever I’m having trouble, I text Debbie. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to have someone like that,” Stythe says.
Stythe was back on the bench for the Mystics on Sunday, for their 68-44 thrashing of the Stars (equaling their highest margin of victory in premiership history), but she is still on her Covid comeback plan.
She has lofty goals – getting a full-time contract with the Mystics, which shouldn’t be too far in the future, and one day playing for the Silver Ferns.
“I want to get fitter and faster, and work more in the goal space, because I played most of my netball at the goalkeeper. People said ‘Oh, she’s big, we’ll put her in the back’. But the Marvels pushed me further, and I’m playing goal d for the Mystics with Sulu behind me,” she said.
“I have to work mainly on my game on the pitch, because I struggle with it, especially at this level. But it’s so easy to teach the Mystics – the whole culture and environment has been so welcoming.
“I was quite shy at first; I think Su said that in a TV interview, and mom texted me and said, “You shy?!”
“I love that the girls have all been shamelessly themselves, which allows me to be myself. If I’m shy, it’s only because I play with my idols.
* In the only other ANZ Premiership game this weekend, the Pulse produced an outstanding defensive final quarter to hold off a determined Tactix, 58-41. The two games featuring the Steel at the weekend have been postponed with Covid sweeping the south side.