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Sunday, April 15, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Netball seeks to expand its sphere of influence

Seattle Times staff reporter

Listen, mate: Do you hear the slap and scuffle of sneakers on pavement? That's the sound of a sport played by more than 20 million women worldwide.

It's called netball, and if you look closely, you'll recognize it as a distant cousin of basketball. And if the Emerald City Netball Club has its way, you'll be seeing a lot more of it.

"The joy of netball is that you don't have to be 6-foot to play," says Lisa Washington, coach and co-founder of the club, which plays Saturdays at Redmond's Marymoor Park. That's because every position has an integral role in play, making netball a true team sport.

In netball, each player is restricted to various zones on the court, and the ball must travel through each zone en route to the scoring circle (actually a half-circle, as in basketball). It's a cross between basketball and ultimate Frisbee.

So far, most of the club's 42 members are expats who began playing as seventh-graders in England, Wales or India. Some are married to Boeing or Microsoft workers here on temporary contracts; others, like Fiji's Meri Malo, a member of Fiji's 1992 national squad, are here for good.

"I wondered if it had reached the states yet," says England's Jane Flores, who now drives 90 minutes from Port Orchard for Saturday's games. "My husband thinks I'm mad," she says.

"We're desperately trying to get more Americans to give it a go," coach Washington says.

She's from New Zealand, which according to some of her Australian teammates means she talks funny. (Netball offers a chance to fan the countries' long-running rivalry, as in rugby, soccer and cricket.)

World Cup later this year

The Netball World Cup is held every four years; the next takes place later this year in New Zealand — home to the world's reigning champs, as Washington likes to note to the chagrin of her Aussie counterparts. (Fiji was set to host until a recent government coup threw everything into disarray.)

Washington actually played for Team USA at last year's qualifying tournament in Barbados after inquiring into coaching opportunities. (Such is the need for local netballers.)

The experience showed how far U.S. netballers have to go before they can seriously compete on an international level.

That's one reason they're here at Marymoor in tennis-dress-like uniforms on a cold, windy Saturday, promoting a "Pacific Coast" league that stretches from British Columbia to Southern California but also includes a team from Nashville, Tenn.

"People are just desperate for games," Washington says.

Though popular around the globe, netball has nonetheless been seen as a women's sport, with men shying away. That has changed in recent years, and on Saturdays the Emerald City games feature mixed teams with husbands, such as Justin McKeown, and daughters taking the court alongside their wives and moms.

"My husband used to play back in Australia," Kim McKeown says.

Says Justin: "I try not to spread that around."

Fast-paced game

In netball, the court, slightly longer than in basketball, is divided into equal thirds, with the two outer thirds enveloping a half-circle under the basket.

Only two players on each team are allowed inside the scoring circle — two defenders and two scorers, whose teammates are constantly trying to feed them the volleyball-size sphere, "so there's a lot of quick, little passes," Washington says.

At its best, the game is fast-paced and full of crisp, dead-on passes; teams at high levels work designed plays into the action. At one end of the court is a free-standing hoop with no backboard, which looms like a Dixie cup at the end of a javelin.

The club is serious about spreading the word: Members offered an after-school netball program for kids at Ballard's Adams Elementary, while later this month, they'll talk with Issaquah district officials about introducing the sport into physical-education classes there.

Australia's Tubi Gulley found netball after finding basketball too strenuous. "I don't think I'm fit or agile enough to play basketball anymore," Gulley says. "In this sport, I get a break when the ball's at the other end."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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