Ask Simone McKinnis about the positives of an almost-finished season more challenging than any other the Melbourne Vixens’ coach has experienced, and the obvious individual nomination is rookie midcourter Hannah Mundy.
“She’s shown some real growth across the season,’’ McKinnis says. “It was a huge step for her to come in, and even Hannah acknowledges, looking at her game from early rounds to now, how far she’s come.
“It’s just been that real growth and learning for her and just that confidence that she’s building from being out on court. She’s just very coachable, so she improves, because she takes it all on board.
“She loves it, loves a challenge, loves being out there and wants to be the best netballer that she can be.’’
But it’s when discussing the all-in-this together attitude of the Vixens collective that McKinnis gets emotional. And for those not sufficiently aware, have no doubt that a softer side has existed for longer than it's been seen.
“They never stop impressing me, just in their resilience. After last year… ‘’ says the dual premiership coach and former champion player before breaking off for a tiny, tearful and utterly genuine moment.
“Whatever’s happened they’ve been like ‘right-o, get on with it’, and I know in Adelaide there was a time when I was struggling one day but they’re all upbeat, and they drag you along, sort-of thing, so they’ve been super.’’
It is impossible to underestimate the challenges of the 2021 Suncorp Super Netball season on players, coaches, support staff, everyone - even after the unique entree served up in the Queensland hub from last July.
Back in Covid (1), a late call to pack bags and head north to beat lockdown after many days of uncertainty was accepted as a rare necessity, and the fact it stretched beyond original estimates seemed like an extended sacrifice rather than a major upheaval.
“Even though there was some uncertainty, you knew you were up there in the hub in Queensland for nine weeks, which turned into 14. But you knew what that was,’’ says McKinnis.
“Whereas this year, even going up to Queensland to begin with, it almost felt like every day (was) not knowing what’s going on; where you’ll be or where you’re playing. And then getting calls: ‘you’ve got to pack up, you’ve got to go to wherever it might be’.’’
In Covid (2), the first call to leave the state was again a summons to Queensland, after round four. A brief return to Melbourne for a one-off cameo at John Cain Arena, was followed by a second order to vacate, without knowing the destination until en route to the airport.
The new definition of a mystery flight, perhaps. Which was how, in good and very necessary humour, it was treated.
Destination: South Australia.
“At that stage we were playing there for the next couple of weeks, and so we changed hotels, thinking ‘OK, we’re gonna be settled here’, and then next morning it was ‘you’ve got to pack up, gotta leave, gotta get out of Adelaide’,'' says McKinnis.
"So just heaps of uncertainty; it’s just been really different challenges.’’
That includes the unwelcome new territory of going from premiers to, ahem, not, and all that entails, combined with the other demands and sensitivities. Morale needs to be maintained. Spirits kept up.
“Not winning games is really foreign to us as a club, and that’s really hard - especially directly after a game, and it’s just about finding that way to refocus,’’ says McKinnis.
“You’ve got to move on to the next game and think that next game is the opportunity. They’ve been pretty good, I have to say, because the motivation is to win and to play good netball, and every time when we’ve got a game ahead of us, that drives us all.’’
Up there in oh-so-familiar Queensland, there are two rounds left: on Monday against the Adelaide Thunderbirds, and Wednesday versus the Queensland Firebirds.
Stress saps energy, but certainty is helpful, and the end now in sight.
“As disappointing as it’s been results-wise, there are learnings that you come out with from being in a challenging situation like this,’’ says McKinnis.
“At different stages across the season we’ve played some really good netball; it’s just that ability to execute it across a full game that’s been missing,
“We still want wins. We’re pushing for wins, but we know that for that to happen it has to be that consistency from start to finish; put four quarters together, and just walk off court and be really happy with what we’ve put out there.
“We still have that motivation and focus for wins and improvements, because there’s been some disappointments, and disappointing performances, so we're just wanting to finish the season out in the best possible manner.
“For the players' own sake, but most importantly for the team’s sake and the club - that’s what it’s about. You just want to be representing Vixens members and supporters in the best possible way.’’
Written by Linda Pearce