Simone McKinnis had entered Grand Final week feeling calm. Super-calm, in fact. Then she got a little anxious, but not for the reasons you might think.
“I was getting stressed because I’m thinking ‘why are you so calm?’,’’ admitted McKinnis, able to see the funny side of a rare case of over-analysis.
“But I just felt good coming into the week. I just felt like ‘we’ve done everything that we can, it’s just playing the game now’. There’s a lot of heart in the group, and there was a lot of determination that we weren’t going to be going home without the title.’’
So, Victoria, here it comes. On Wednesday, a group of players and staff will return after 96 days, having headed north in July for what was supposed to be a far briefer stay in the season-saving Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) hub.
Mission complete. A famous victory earned in the most unique of circumstances.
From McKinnis, there had been tears leading in, with many in netball surprised by what spilled over during a Channel 9 interview about the impact of COVID-19 on her home state.
Then, afterwards, as the Vixens hung on for a dramatic 66-64 victory to claim their first SSN title and third at national league level since the club’s debut in 2008, came a stunning new move.
“That moment was just ‘we did it’. It just comes out physically, I guess,’’ says McKinnis, as what was a massive hit on social media also spawned a rash of copycats - including the Vixens’ players celebrating into the early hours of Monday. “Yeah, um, I think there was a few imitations last [Sunday] night!’’
The emotions were real, though. And if the usually in-control McKinnis seems a touch embarrassed about letting her guard down so publicly for one of the few times in her distinguished career as a champion player and respected coach - “Oh, I know! Good grief,” she laments - the context comes in the next breath.
“You know what? It has been an emotional roller-coaster,’’ says McKinnis. “I know for me there’s been two or three times I just hit the wall and really struggled. It was just that emotional up and down, and we all had our good days and bad days. All of us.’’
Sunday was the very best of days.
Having trailed at both quarter-time and half-time, an 18-14 third term saw the Vixens briefly stretch their advantage to five goals. But a Fever surge in the last saw the lead swap back and forth until, with just over 60 seconds remaining, former Vixen, Alice Teague-Neeld, missed a Super Shot that would have put West Coast back in front.
McKinnis can not recall how she felt at that moment, the middle part of the quarter having passed so quickly. But she remembers Emily Mannix and Jo Weston’s “huge” rebound, as well as a Kumwenda intercept and a clutch Caity Thwaites two-pointer in that desperate last stretch before the tactics switched to running down the clock.
What was not forgotten, either, was what McKinnis had drilled into her team during training sessions. Over and over.
“They hate me for it, because I’ll give them a time that they have to maintain possession for and it might be a minute, it might be a couple of minutes, whatever - and we’ve done that 1000 times,’’ she says.
“And they did that really well. Mind you, Fever were all over them and it was hard for them to do anything or get anywhere, but they maintained possession.’’
So it was that a skilled and well-drilled team with heart and determination also showed another key quality when a game that had almost been won could easily have been lost.
“That composure has been a key factor all year and what probably has been the difference for us,’’ says McKinnis. “The consistency, but it comes from having that composure and control and that decision-making in the moment.’’
The next key choices for the Vixens’ brains trust will relate to list management, including confirming which two shooters will replace Thwaites and Tegan Philip and whittling down multiple midcourt options after an expanded squad was permitted for a condensed 2020.
Monday night’s Sharelle McMahon Medal was the last official function, and the sense of satisfaction that followed her initial “relieved, exhilarated and everything in between” summary was tinged with understandable exhaustion.
Indeed, for anyone who was not there, just how challenging this year has been is impossible to fully understand. And McKinnis expects that a period of readjustment will be needed for many once they return to Melbourne (or, in her case, Geelong).
“To be honest, I’m just looking forward to being in my own home again,’’ she says. “It’s just a nice feeling to come through it all. And to win at the end, it’s just amazing.’’
Written by Linda Pearce