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Challenges ahead for title contenders

The hunt for a grand finals berth steps up at the New Zealand Secondary Schools Champs and national selector Kiri Wills expects a tight race.

The top eight teams were found at the national tournament in Rotorua on Wednesday and pool play to determine which two teams make Friday’s final is under-way.

Wills said she had seen an “extremely competitive” opening day at the tournament which had set up a challenging second phase as teams were split into the top and bottom eight.

“It’s been a pretty high standard from early on,” she said. “Often we can see teams easing into it on day one but it’s been full on from the start and some very competitive pools.”

The push for a top two spot in Pool D went to the wire with St Mary’s College of Wellington edging tournament newcomers St Paul’s Collegiate.

Epsom Girls’ Grammar School lost their opening game of the tournament but won their next two games – including a thriller with St Mary’s – to win the highly contested Pool while St Mary’s needed to beat St Paul’s to progress.

They trailed by one goal to St Paul’s going into the second half but narrowly claimed the next two quarters to reach the top eight with a 32-28 victory.

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Day two proved a big one for St Mary’s who later faced Pool C winner Mount Albert Grammar School (MAGS) in the opening round of phase 2 play.

St Mary’s led by one goal at the first break but MAGS won the next three quarters to earn maximum points with a 35-27 win and remain on track for a finals berth.

Wills said players faced another tough day on Thursday as they pushed hard to finish ranked one in the pools making up the top eight – earning the right to play in Friday’s grand final.

“The intensity certainly lifts and it’s a challenge for the players – both mentally and physically – to bring their best for two games every day,” she said. “But the girls are pretty primed for this tournament and you can see the excitement. There’s certainly plenty of emotion – good emotion – from all teams.”

Howick College continued their dream debut at the national tournament by topping Pool A and going on to beat Waikato Diocesan School for Girls 30-26.

“I’m not surprised with how they’ve performed,” Wills said. “While they will be happy to just be at nationals I believe they are contenders and someone to watch.”

Epsom Girls’ Grammar School also showed they will be tough to topple with a convincing 52-36 win over St Hilda’s Collegiate while the defending champion Saint Kentigern College won an enthralling arm-wrestle with Manukura, winning 35-34, in the last game of the day.

Meanwhile, Palmerston North Girls’ High School, Ashburton College, St Paul’s Collegiate and St Margaret’s College all netted wins in the opening rounds of Pools G and H.

Play continues tomorrow with the grand final to be played at the Energy Events Centre in Rotorua on Friday.