A brief debut. Such a long time coming.
On a thrilling Tuesday night in Brisbane, three minutes of Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) counted as an experience that 25-year-old Elle McDonald had wondered would ever come.
After a rolled ankle to Vixens’ captain Kate Moloney necessitated a quick re-tape late in the first quarter against the West Coast Fever, coach Simone McKinnis OAM told McDonald her moment had come.
A tactical timeout allowed the mature-aged rookie to take a breath, drink in the encouragement of her teammates from the huddle, then step out into the centre circle…for a first touch that, well, did not exactly go as planned.
Whistle. Replayed ball. Fever possession.
“Not too sure what happened there!’’ McDonald laughs. “I think Lizzy (Watson) made a move and I was pretty keen to pass it onto her but she doubled back and then I thought I’d better not give that one, so I sort of faked the ball and (the umpire) must have thought it slipped it out of my hands.
“But that’s all right. I was just like ‘oh well, onto the next thing’. And, after the game, everyone sort of told me their stories of their debuts and embarrassing netball moments, which put me at ease that ‘yeah, it’s okay’.’’
For McDonald, it was better than that, down to a rousing rendition of the club song after the nine-goal win that retained top spot for the Vixens ahead of Sunday’s clash with the GIANTS, and the traditional debutante’s dousing with water and sports drinks.
“I loved it though,’’ says the strongly-built midcourter, who was also flooded with messages and congratulatory calls. “So I definitely felt the love when I got off the court and looked at my phone, and I think everyone was just really happy to see me out on court and doing what I love.
“I definitely felt the support from the girls as well. It was really nice.’’
McDonald did not follow the traditional Victorian representative pathway, given that she was never selected in a junior state team. Instead the Diamond Creek product - the one not named Kate Moloney - made more of a backdoor entry to the BUPA Victorian Netball League, rising from 19/U to Division 1 and eventually Championship grade.
In 2018, McDonald was again overlooked for a spot on the Victorian Fury’s ANL roster. Yet, while continuing to work as a PE and Health teacher at Seymour College, coach the A-grade team in the local Goulburn Valley league and play mixed netball when not fronting up for the North East Blaze, her perseverance was soon rewarded.
Invitations to Fury training soon saw her status upgraded to Training Partner. Within weeks she was a full team member - one shocked to earn the starting centre bib in the eventual champion’s opening game.
Relishing the coaching of Di Honey and Eloise Southby, and access to strength and conditioning programs at the Victorian Institute of Sport in the elite environment of the SSN feeder competition, a breakout 2019 ended with McDonald being named as a Vixens’ Training Partner in the biggest league of all.
“It’s just been such a whirlwind,’’ she admits. “To think that I’d initially got a no from Fury. It’s really strange to look back and think ‘God, this time last year…’
“Getting this opportunity I was really keen to just give it my all and see what I could do within such an experienced group, and just with the coaching at that next level, now being under Simone and Sharelle (McMahon).
"I’m just trying to sponge as much information as I can.‘’
McDonald never lost hope, she insists, but doubts were inevitable.
“After you do get a knock back it’s hard not to let your head drop a bit and think ‘you know what, I’ve tried so many times now, maybe I’m not made to play at that next level’,'' she says.
“But then just with a bit of extra encouragement you sort of think ‘well, this is what I really want to do, so why not? What have I got to lose, really, by not going to that tryout or something?’
“It’s always been my love and passion for the game that have kept me pushing along, and I‘ve definitely been very disappointed at times with not making teams and things, but for me it’s just been about playing at the best level that I can play and being the best player that I can be.
“So I’ve always pushed myself. I’ve worked really hard at trainings, and I’ve also had just such a good support system at home - my Mum and my Nan are like my number one supporters, and they would love to be up here but I know they’ll be watching every game.
“They’ve always had a real belief in me that I can do it, and that definitely gives me confidence to step up and just keep working to get better and better.’’
As challenging as the circumstances around COVID-19 have been for so many, the fact that, SSN-wise, they have led to expanded benches in a condensed season with rolling subs has opened the door for the likes of McDonald and her quarantine-fortnight roommate, Jacqui Newton.
During a long and demanding pre-season that included iso-training and solo runs on rainy days, McDonald would remind herself of McKinnis' goal for the Vixens to be the league's toughest competitors, “and that’s always been in the back of my mind; just get the job done, so that any opportunity that comes about, I’ll be ready for it.
“And usually having a squad of 10 we most likely wouldn't get these opportunities to sit on the bench or even take the court, so for me and all the other training partners it’s definitely a great experience for us and that’s because of COVID and how the season has changed.’’
So back to that debut cameo. Three minutes. The best three of her life?
“It was just an amazing opportunity to step out on court and I just loved every second of it and I’m very grateful that Simone had that belief in me to play my part,'' says McDonald.
“So fingers crossed for more opportunities like that. And otherwise I’ll just be working really hard to do what I can to get back on the court.’’
Written by Linda Pearce