It will be a very different Steph Baxter that steps onto the pitch at the 2017 Premier Hockey League at the end of the month.

Having impressed selectors at last year’s edition of the tournament, Baxter was picked for the South African women’s team.

Now, with 20 international caps to her credit, the 24-year-old is a far more confident player. She admits herself, she’s far better at expressing herself as well.

“Going into PHL this year, I’m a little more mature in my game and a little more outspoken. I’m a little quite at times and I think I’ve grown in that manner,” said the Potch student. 

Backing her all the way is coach of the St Lucia Lakers side she’ll be representing for a second consecutive year, Inky Zondi.

“Steph is an exciting young player with natural ability and lots of potential,” he said.

“She is a player who can change the course of a game through her attacking flair and I look forward to seeing her bring this through to the Lakers team in 2017. She creates dangerous attacking scenarios and the team can capitalise from this,” added the coach.

“Her exposure to top international competition and players in the SA team this year, particularly at the World League hosted here in Johannesburg would have benefited her hugely and grown her as an individual. Competing at that level can add confidence to a player's game and hopefully she can bring those learnings through this year at PHL 2017.”

The Lakers finished fourth at last year’s tournament but Baxter feels they’re a stronger outfit this time around.

“I’m super excited to be playing for the Lakers again in 2017. I think this year’s team is a little more experienced than last year. There’s a lot of depth in the side and I’m extremely excited to see what we can produce and how we get on as a unit.”

Other marquee players joining Baxter in the team are one of the stars of the SA side, veteran Shelley Jones, and other national teammates Quanita Bobbs and Kara Stella. They play their first game against the Orange River Rafters on Saturday, 25 November.

Zondi reckoned: “I believe this is a competitive group with a strong core of players from 2016 and I look forward to helping them progress from strength to strength each game.”

Speaking about how the PHL has played such an important part in her career, Baxter explained: “PHL is such a major tournament with all the big names partaking in this event. That did not scare me though. In fact, I saw it as another opportunity to learn and just enjoy hockey on such a scale as there aren’t many tournaments like PHL. Lenise Marais also played a big role as she gave me so much freedom to play my game and that gave me more confidence knowing she believed in me and my abilities.

“I think the PHL is important as it has reached a much larger audience and people have taken so much more interest in the sport, with it being televised by SuperSport. Having a bigger base and having people take more interest can only boost hockey more, causing more sponsorships and interest in our national teams.” 

The PHL group games will be played over three consecutive weekends, starting on 25 November, with the playoff matches contested on December 11-12. All matches will be played at the Randburg Astro in Johannesburg and will be broadcast live on SuperSport.