Raging bushfires devastated her family’s farm in the early hours of New Year's Eve. A global pandemic that hampered fundraising efforts and rural community rebuilds then forced the postponement of Suncorp Super Netball and the cancellation of the Deakin University ANL.
Given all that, and how challenging the past six months have been for Victorian Fury captain/Melbourne Vixens’ training partner Jacqui Newton, it would surely be an understatement to say that things can only get better in the second half of 2020.
“I’d like to think I’m an optimist, so yes,’’ said the young defender with a laugh. “Oh, definitely. On the way up.’’
First, a rewind. To 3am on January 31, when the wildfires that had spread down through southern NSW jumped the Murray River and engulfed the Newton family’s 500-acre cattle and sheep farm at tiny Mt Alfred Gap, about an hour from Wodonga.
Jacqui’s dad Lester managed to save the house, and himself, but little else. Ash-covered and traumatised, he returned to town only after running out of water once the pipes had melted, by which time the power and communications had already been cut and there were fears for his safety.
Tears rather than celebrations were shared at midnight, before Les, his wife Catherine and Jacqui returned on New Year's Day through police roadblocks back into the fire zone to survey the damage, hoping their precious home would still be standing.
It was the only thing that was.
“It was awful. It was really gross. So daunting,’’ Newton recalls.”We got there and things were still burning. Going to check on the animals was probably the worst part - it was smelly and black and dusty and disgusting. But we got through that and then the rebuild just began, I guess.’’
One that is now well advanced, with charred tree stumps the main reminders of such a terrifying time. Pastures are green again, there are plans for new chook and milking sheds, water tanks and silage, fences have been replaced and upgraded, cattle and sheep restocked.
“It’s coming along nicely, I would say,’’ says Newton, who discusses the subsequent Covid-19 complications in terms of the lost opportunities for so many small country towns with tourism-reliant economies. There was also the shelving of a Vixens’ fundraiser planned to go with Netball Australia’s successful bushfire relief game.
By March, netball - and sport - had been shut down, and while the Victorian Fury playing group retained a spark of hope, there was also the need to be realistic in the face of the likely logistical difficulties and protocols required for ANL to proceed.
When the cancellation announcement finally came, Newton says: "It was quite disheartening not to have a season to play, so it was tough for us. But we’re reigning premiers for another year, so that’s fine!’’
While the Bupa VNL is tipped to get underway in late July, Newton is unsure whether she and fellow Vixens’ training partners Ruby Barkmeyer, Allie Smith and Elle and Sacha McDonald will be permitted to drop back to state league level, given the need to limit the exposure and potential for transmission of the virus that remains defiantly in play.
Meanwhile, full Vixens contact training began last week, which was taxing but welcome. Newton was thrilled to be able to work as part of an extended squad again, rather than in smaller positional groups, having missed the social contact and interactions with her friends above all during iso-sessions and the staggered return.
The recently-graduated schoolteacher - her disciplines are Japanese and legal studies with humanities - is still learning her defensive craft, having spent six games on the bench as an injury replacement over the past two seasons and almost one minute on court when Jo Weston left under the blood rule against the Adelaide Thunderbirds in 2018.
“Vixens don’t count it as a debut, so I don’t either,’’ says Newton, which does not mean she didn't find her surprise cameo utterly thrilling.
“Stats: one contact and one possession. It was more of a ‘here if you need’ possession. Kate (Moloney) was near the edge of the circle and turned around and passed it back to me, and I was like ‘oh my God, oh my God, it happened, I actually touched the ball!’.’’
With three internationals in the queue ahead of her, the enthusiastic circle understudy admits to being "in awe" of Weston, Emily Mannix and Jamaican Kadie-Ann Dehaney.
"I learn something new every day from Jo and Em and KD, and it’s just so much fun. They are so good, and even if I do something that’s not great they are always there to pick me up. I love it.’’
In her third year as a training partner, the 23-year-old is also relishing the responsibility of helping out the newer members of head coach Simone McKinnis' extended Vixens group.
“I still think of myself as so young, but then I look at the other training partners coming through and see that I do have the most experience - and especially with the Fury captaincy in my third year that I kind of am in that senior role now,'' says Newton.
"I remember what it was like for me in my first year, or even second year, it is quite daunting, and especially because Vixens is such a close-knit group. They’ve been playing together for so many years and it’s awesome, and you want to break through but you don’t want to seem too pushy and star struck, so it’s a bit up and down.
"But now that I’m here it’s just so comfortable. It's a great group. I'm very lucky.’’
Written by Linda Pearce