Natalie Panagarry of Loughborough Lightning lifts the Vitality Netball Super League trophy alongside her team mate
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- Loughborough Lightning 49 – 32 Team Bath
Loughborough Lightning finally banished their Superleague hoodoo to win their first domestic title at the fourth-time of asking after producing a dominant victory over Team Bath.
Having come up short in all three of their previous finals – which included consecutive defeats in 2017 and 2018 – Lightning cruised to a comprehensive win to rid their perennial status as runners-up.
“It’s huge. It’s not like a monkey off our back – it’s like getting a King-Kong off the back,” conceded a relieved Sara Francis-Bayman, Lightning’s director of netball, after the match. “What was most impressive is that we never let Bath get too close to us. We talked about being relentless. It was never about just maintaining it [the lead] it was always about pushing on. We wanted to get to that last quarter where we were comfortable.”
Central to Lightning’s superiority was their mid-courter Beth Cobden, who was clearly galvanized by the painful memory of suffering two back-to-back Anterior Cruciate Ligament injuries – the first of which came in Loughborough’s last final three years ago. The 28-year-old, who was part of England’s Commonwealth winning side in 2018, diligently spearheaded large swathes of Lightning’s attack while picking off a series of vital turnovers in a player-of-the-match performance.
Beth Cobden ran the attack for Loughborough
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Her telepathic link-up play with Nat Panagarry was equally impressive, which forced Bath on the back foot as the university franchise stretched their advantage to an eight-point lead by the break which they never looked like relinquishing.
Despite a nervy start, they eventually showed their class through their star shooting partnership of Mary Cholhok and Ella Clark, a dual athlete who has represented England in both basketball and netball and only returned to the latter in 2016.
By the start of the fourth quarter, the duo had eked out a healthy 10-point lead as Bath struggled to impose themselves on the growing gap. “Just to get over that finishing line, it was more mentality for us,” said Natalie Panagarry, Lightning’s centre. “I think the last two finals that we played, we just got overwhelmed by it. Obviously with Covid it’s been a hard year, we all focused just on us and didn’t listen to the white noise around us. A lot of people wrote us off at the start of the year, but we’ve proved what we can do and just at the right time, played some of our best netball.”
Sara Francis-Bayman masterminds Lightning’s maiden Superleague title
In an Covid-hit season which saw England’s top-flight netball competition played across two central venues – and 12,500 Covid tests later – it seems fitting that Loughborough Lightning are the new champions of English netball.
The Midlands franchise has come tantalisingly close to winning the title in recent years. In both 2017 and 2018 they were runners-up, falling short to Wasps at the last hurdle on both occasions. It was clear that a change at the top was needed.
Former England player Sara Francis-Bayman (R) has been the key addition at head coach for the Loughborough Lightning
Credit: Mark Kolbe
Enter head coach Sara Francis-Bayman, who took over the franchise in July 2019 after finishing her playing career at Scottish side Strathclyde Sirens. The former England player, who was capped 84 times for her country, quickly set about creating a group of winners. She recruited Lightning’s shooting sensation Mary Cholhok – the 6-foot 7-inch Uganda goal shooter who has finished as the Superleague’s top scorer in the past two seasons – and whose aerial threat up front other sides have struggled to match.
With four Superleague titles to her name, it was only a matter of time before Francis-Bayman would instill a champion mentality on her group of players. That she has achieved just that one year after the Superleague 2020 season was shelved because of the pandemic, is a testament to her leadership credentials as a coach.
“She’s passionate, that’s what she brings as a coach. You know that she trusts you,” said Panagarry, who was eager to pay tribute to her after the final. “She’s honest – she doesn’t sugarcoat [things] she tells you what she wants. Sara trusts us and today she wanted us to be brave and go out there – all the right things that you want to hear from a coach each week.”