In her first season as an ANZ Premiership captain, Ameliaranne Ekenasio was nervous about filling the shoes of the legendary Magic captains before her. But, as Merryn Anderson writes, the quiet leader has the full respect of the side who voted her in.
When the Waikato Bay of Plenty Magic created history winning the ANZ Championship in 2012, Ameliaranne Ekenasio watched with awe and a little fear.
Little did the 21-year-old know she'd one day carry on a powerful legacy of Magic leaders.
Back then she was Ameliaranne Wells, the young shooter playing in her second year with the Queensland Firebirds - representing the state where she grew up in the trans-Tasman competition. Eleven years later, the Australian-born shooter is the proud captain of the Magic in the ANZ Premiership.
Ekenasio says the Magic were a feared team in the days of the ANZ Championship, where they were the only Kiwi team to win in the nine seasons of competition.
“I think it's because they were so strong in the way they carried themselves,” she says.
Today, Ekenasio is the 10th captain of the Magic, continuing the legacy of some true legends of the game, like Amigene Metcalfe (the first Magic captain in 1999, who later coached the franchise), Jenny-May Coffin, Joline Johansson (nee Henry), Irene van Dyk, Laura Langman, Casey Kopua and Leana de Bruin.
Magic stalwart Sam Winders led the side for the past three seasons before departing for the Southern Steel, and Ekenasio took over the reins this year in her second season with the team.
“It was definitely a challenging decision - one, because I hold Sammy in really high regard as a captain, so I knew there were really big shoes to fill,” she says, having moved north from the Pulse for the 2022 season.
“But not only that, when you look at the people who have been Magic captains before, you’ve got people like Laura Langman and Casey Kopua, so it feels like stepping into a big role.
“I was hoping I would be the right person, knowing there’s big shoes to fill. But ultimately I feel really proud to have been voted in as captain as well, to know the team was behind me."
Ekenasio had never captained a domestic team before, being chosen as the captain of the Pulse in 2021 before missing the season - taking time off for her mental health and then becoming pregnant with her second child, daughter Luna.
She’s captained the Silver Ferns on and off since 2020, elected by her peers for the role. Her calm and kind nature can seem a contrast to other captains you see in sport, who are often heard raising their voice to rouse a team, but her gentle passion and support for her team is clear.
Mary-Jane Araroa took over as coach of the Magic last season, and introduced aspects of tikanga Māori into the team culture.
“That feels like it comes really natural as well,” says Ekenasio, who’s of Ngāti Kahu and Ngāpuhi descent.
“Information is really shared in the hope of you learning, so I’ve come in and I’ve learned so much in that respect. I actually really love that side of it - it’s not that we absolutely live by tikanga, but it’s definitely present in a lot that we do.”
Most of the team have played multiple seasons with the Magic, so Ekenasio is one of the newer faces.
“Coming into the Magic, you can feel you’re coming into a really proud franchise, they’re really proud of where they’ve been in the past, they know everybody who has been through,” she says.
“The mana that sits behind the Magic is always something we talk about and the people that have come before us. We have to work to really make sure we’re wearing the dress with a lot of pride and doing it justice.”
The Magic have won two of their five matches so far, and earned a bonus point in one of their losses to sit fifth on the table. But the table is tight, with only one win separating second and fifth.
“We actually are feeling like we’re in a heaps better place than last year,” says Ekenasio. The Magic finished fifth last season with four wins; their four bonus points the only thing lifting them off the bottom of the table.
“We’ve been really enjoying working on our game and trying to figure out what we want to be known for, and how we want to turn up every single game. So that’s been exciting but it's come with its challenges too,” she says.
“I really thought that when we’re in games, we’re really in games, but we’ve had some big blowouts too - which have been hard to take as a team as well and have kind of made us really really turn up hungry the next week at training.”
This is Ekenasio’s second ANZ Premiership season as a mum of two - her son, Ocean, is five years old and Luna is 17 months.
“Being away from my babies and from my family is definitely the hardest part about it,” says Ekenasio, who’s been open about the struggle of being a mum and an athlete.
“It’s really hard and my heart gets really sad and I do miss my babies. But at the same time, I sometimes get a couple of days where I get to be a fulltime athlete and I get to do everything that everybody gets to do without kids,” she says.
“I get to do all my recovery properly and I get to have a really good sleep and all my focus is just on me as an athlete for those couple of days.”
Luckily Ekenasio, who travels each week from her home in Wellington, has her Magic family to lean on when she’s away, including past players.
“When we played in Hamilton, we had Casey and Leana at the courts and we all saw them. It was just this real lift in the team, knowing they were there,” she says.
“To have them there pushes you even further to make sure you're representing the franchise well. And when you’re wearing the dress, you’re wearing it with heaps of pride…it represents them as well too, so you don’t want to let them down.”
Ekenasio stresses that it isn’t necessarily about winning games.
“That’s a really big learning curve for us - and for me as well,” she says. “Just because we lose, it still doesn’t mean we’re stripped of our mana, it’s more how we do it and how we carry ourselves.”
Being a name on a long list of legends doesn’t phase Ekenasio.
“When I was thinking about legacy for me as a captain, I never exactly think about it,” she says. “It’s more what I do will leave a legacy and how I am will hopefully be more remembered.”
*Heritage Round starts with the Steel taking on the Mystics at 7pm on Saturday (Sky Sport 3). The Magic play the Pulse on Sunday at 2pm, followed by the Stars vs Tactix at 4pm (both Sky Sport 3). The round concludes on Monday when the Pulse play the Mystics at 7.30pm (Sky Sport 1).