Bury netball stars Ellie Heyes and Emma Rayner are relishing the renewal of their on-court partnership after an absence of almost two years – and have their eyes on further honours with Manchester Thunder and England.
The pair came through the ranks together at YWCA Bury and currently represent Thunder in the Netball Performance League, while both have recently been named in the Roses Academy squad who will meet for monthly performance camps in Loughborough over the summer.
Heyes, 18, has only recently returned to competitive action having seen last year’s comeback from an anterior cruciate ligament injury delayed by various lockdowns and Rayner is delighted to have her teammate back by her side.
“We’ve known each other since we were 10 – and with Thunder, England and the fact we’re both at the same Uni [Manchester Met], it’s like we’re joined at the hip at the moment!” Rayner said.
“It was weird without Ellie. She has been there throughout my netball experiences and we always had a combination between us on court.
“You just have to be there to push her through and help her come out the other end as she has. It’s special to be back on the court together now.”
Heyes, meanwhile, tried her best to use her time on the sidelines wisely and feels her hard work is now paying off.
“I used it as an opportunity to develop other aspects of netball,” she said.
“I improved things like agility, which I wouldn’t have had the time to do while playing all the time, and I tried to use it as a positive rather than a setback.
“It felt a bit weird to play again after so long but it’s brilliant to be back and now I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Thunder have won three Super League titles since 2012 and having been regulars in the stands as youngsters, both Heyes and Rayner have their sights set on contributing to future success.
Their parallel trajectories are set to continue too, with both benefiting from a partnership between SportsAid and Entain – owner of Ladbrokes and Coral – which provides vital funding for training, travel, equipment and access to mentoring.
Fifty promising athletes from a wide range of sports are part of the latest cohort and the funding has given both prospects a valuable boost.
“This is my third year on a SportsAid programme and I’ve loved it so far,” Heyes said.
“The extra sessions online, with the mentoring and advice, has definitely helped and this funding will contribute towards my final bits of rehab and physio, as well as travel.”
Rayner, whose younger sister Katie is part of Thunder’s Under-15 side, added: “It’s nice to see all the other athletes that have been selected and hear their stories.
“When you see what they’ve all been achieving, it’s a massive confidence boost to know you’re on a par with them.
“Ellie and I used to go together to watch Thunder with our families but when you’re younger, you never think you’ll get anywhere close to playing for them.
“To think our parents might be able to watch us playing in the first team – it would mean a lot.”