Netball Scotland continues to expand its base by launching a network to take school players to the upper levels of the game, reports Roddy Mackenzie
In netball, Scotland is ranked 15th in the world at senior level and sixth at under-21 level, but there are no indications that Netball Scotland is resting on its laurels.
There are plans to attend next year's World Youth Games in Florida and, for the game's long-term wellbeing, the governing body is working hard to develop the schools game. Almost halfway through its five-year development plan, entitled Widening the Net, Netball Scotland has 1,300 registered adult players but estimates that some 20,000 people are playing regularly - most in schools.
The game has been traditionally strong in Lanarkshire and Glasgow - supported by a strong schools framework - but there are now full-time development officers in Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire in addition to Glasgow and South Lanarkshire.
Netball is also played in Edinburgh and Fife but Nigel Holl, the ruling body's acting general manager, acknowledges the game is still played in pockets throughout Scotland and there is untapped potential in many areas.
However, it is in schools that Netball Scotland is looking to build up its foundations. Mini-netball, the five-a-side introductory game, has given the game a new lease of life in primary schools, but the key to growing the sport will be the transition to the full game in secondary schools and establishing stronger school-club links. With this in mind, and after restructuring some of its finances and winning more funding from SportScotland, the governing body is launching a Netball Networks programme.
The programme is designed to build on existing participation in schools and clubs and offer pathways to excellence and the elite end of the game. There are now 224 primaries and 115 secondaries across Scotland playing netball.
"More teams entered the Scottish Schools Cup this year and part of the reason for that was we introduced a B competition, which has gone down well with schools," explains Mr Holl.
"Overall, numbers are up in schools and I think some of that is to do with the new health awareness that sports like netball can go a long way to keeping you fit.
"There is a lot going on in primary schools in terms of festivals and competitions and secondary schools are working with clusters of local primaries.
"Some clubs are more organised than others but a lot have strong coaching structures and have coaches who are teachers.
"I think netball has an advantage over football and rugby in that you don't need a lot of members to make up a club. A group of friends who played together at school can form themselves into a club without too much difficulty and play in competitions."
Mary Frances McNeil, Netball Scotland's development officer for South Lanarkshire, has seen netball thrive in the area during the five years she has been in the post. She is convinced that, among girls, no sport is played more in the primary schools and points out that it is also a popular game at after-school clubs.
A good model is given by Trinity High in Rutherglen. It not only has netball on the curriculum at S1 and S2 level under principal teacher of physical education Alison Craig, herself a former player, but the school also welcomes primary children into its community club on Monday evenings.
As many as 50 youngsters attended during the first couple of weeks but it is the dedicated players who have remained as members.
"It is not just Trinity's feeder primary schools that are involved, they have thrown the doors open for anyone who wants to attend," says Ms McNeil.
"As well as having a primary section, there are now teams at under-13, under-15 and under-17 level and there is a community club.
"The school also allows me to host festivals for primary schools. We work closely with Ms Craig and with the school sports co-ordinator, Margaret MacLachlan."
The game is also strong in East Kilbride, Glasgow and Aberdeen and in North Lanarkshire, which is without a full-time development officer, Ms McNeil points out.
Not so long ago, there were inter-school leagues in the west of Scotland.
Although some schools still play matches against each other, the festival format is proving more popular, she says.
"I think the festival format is popular as headteachers know at the start of the school year which dates they are on and so can plan accordingly, if teachers or pupils need time out of school.
"In the past, matches between schools would be organised on short notice and that could give headteachers problems. Nowadays, when parental permission slips have to go out all of the time, it is helpful if they know well in advance when events are on."
Ms McNeil admits the challenge for the game is to advance it at secondary level but she believes that by expanding the base in primary schools and creating an appetite for the game, it can only help it grow at secondary level.