A surprising end to a whirlwind 2020

12 days ago

As recently as last year, neither Perth’s Kaylia Stanton nor Bendigo’s Ruby Barkmeyer could have imagined where they would finish 2020.

That is, among the 10 contracted Melbourne Vixens players chosen to embark on the new premiers’ Suncorp Super Netball title defence.

Stanton, 26, has spent the past seven seasons with the West Coast Fever, often struggling for court-time behind the likes of Caitlin Bassett and Nat Medhurst and, more recently, Jhaniele Fowler and former Vixen Alice Teague-Neeld.

While self-isolating in quarantine after spending the SSN season in the Queensland netball hub, Stanton was told in October that there was no spot for her on the Fever’s 2021 list.

Enter the Vixens, looking to fill the two goaling vacancies left by the retirements of decorated pair Tegan Philip and Caitlin Thwaites.

“Bit of a whirlwind. Not gonna lie!,’’ laughs the 189cm Stanton. “It kind of happened really quickly, actually.

“I’m a Perth girl so the option to stay in Perth is obviously something you always want to do - and also because I’ve been part of the club for such a long period of time - but I was really open to moving, as well.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to live in Melbourne, and I think Vixens is one of the best clubs - I mean they are the best club of 2020 - so to be able to come into a side like that is incredibly humbling.’’

As for what is effectively a delayed swap with Teague-Neeld, who has settled out west as Stanton heads east: “It’s kind of funny how things have worked out in the end. Obviously it was meant to be, and I’m really excited the way that it’s turned out, but I definitely wouldn’t have said this was happening at the start of last year.’’

Presumably, in part, because Stanton had finished both 2017 and 2018 as part of Australia’s Fast5 team and been earmarked as one of the nation’s more promising young shooters, having won silver at the 2013 World Youth Cup alongside the likes of Jo Weston and Gretel Bueta.

The daughter of former Australian defender and triple Olympic high jump finalist Chris Stanton, and a WA junior netball rep from 15/U level, the talented athlete was also aware of the Vixens’ history of rewarding products of the renowned Netball Victoria pathway by promoting from within.

But the need for a player to cover both GA and GS in a circle completed by Barkmeyer and Mwai Kumwenda opened the door that had closed on the careers of Thwaites and Philip following the second flag for each.

“They’re such big icons in the sport, and obviously I’m not going to be able to fill their shoes - I don’t think that will ever be possible - so it’s just about bringing my own strengths to the court,’’ says Stanton, admitting that, on top of the tactical smarts of head coach Simone McKinnis, a key attraction was the presence of assistant Sharelle McMahon.

Nor does it come as any surprise that McMahon - arguably the greatest shooter ever - looms large in Barkmeyer’s consciousness, too. The 19-year-old’s childhood idol hails from Bamawn, roughly an hour north of Barkmeyer’s Bendigo.

In their teens, decades apart, both country girls left for boarding school in Melbourne, and it was at Geelong Grammar that Barkmeyer first encountered Allie Smith - the third new Vixens signing and successful 2020 debutante - and long-serving coach Di Honey.

All three were involved in the Victorian Fury’s successful 2019 campaign, after which Barkmeyer was signed as a Vixens training partner for a season delayed and then relocated.

Less happily, she was also, with Jordan Cransberg, one of two out of 16 who could not be squeezed into the expanded travelling party when SSN moved north in June.

Instead, the La Trobe University primary teaching student returned to the family home, training remotely with the VIS squad. With ANL, VNL and the 19/U nationals all cancelled - Barkmeyer's last official game was the Bupa VNL Division One grand final in August 2019, and the Boroondara Express recruit is yet to even debut in Championship Grade.

Fast forward to late last week. When Barkmeyer joined a Zoom call with McKinnis and Vixens’ High Performance General Manager Bek Webster to discuss plans for next year, the understandable expectation was for a more active reprise of that training partner role. Nothing more.

“I did not expect to get a contract, at all,’’ Barkmeyer recalls. “When Simone told me, I was a bit like ‘did she actually say that, or did I make that up?’

“Obviously with Tegs and Caity retiring there was two attacking spots, so there was a tiny bit of ‘oh it could be me’, but I didn’t get too excited because I thought I would be grateful to just get training partner and just be part of the team again because I didn’t really have that full experience this year.’’

So bring on 2021. Having first represented Victoria at 12/U level, the 180cm Barkmeyer will turn 20 just a couple of months before the season begins. Which means both the end of the pathway and, suddenly, almost meteorically, the first steps along a new one.

“It’s been a bit of a disappointing year but this makes it a lot brighter with this news,’’ says the youngest Vixen, who started as a tall, holding shooter before making the transition out to goal attack in the state 15/U schoolgirls team.

“You usually come into the (SSN) system as a training partner for a couple of years and then if you’re lucky enough you get a contract after getting that experience, so it’s a very big jump.

"But, oh, I’m so excited. I’m ready for it.’’

Written by Linda Pearce

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