Question: which is the only Suncorp Super Netball team preparing to field an unchanged playing squad for 2018? Answer: for the first time in their history, the Melbourne Vixens.
We didn’t have to start from scratch or go back, because we’ve had the year together and the knowledge of each other,’’ says 88-game shooter Tegan Philip, the team’s most experienced member.
“We’re still continuing to want to connect more and grow more and understand each other more, but the advantage was that we’d already started that the previous year.’’
For coach Simone McKinnis, three new training partners to join incumbent Tayla Honey changed the dynamic slightly, but continuity was also beneficial in a pre-season marked by even more than the usual amount of international comings-and-goings for Diamonds squad members.
“Just having that experience together goes a long way,’’ McKinnis says. “With the same 10, everybody knows the way we go about things, so it’s about trying to build on the foundations that we set last year.’’
And how solid they were. Eleven wins, one draw and just two losses in the regular season delivered the minor premiership, before the Vixens were pipped by one goal in the major semi by eventual premiers Sunshine Coast Lightning and then, even more surprisingly, eclipsed by the Giants in the preliminary final.
That was 10 months ago, but little time was spent dwelling on those defeats during the marathon off-season that next weekend will turn into a fierce 14-round sprint to the second SSN play-off series.
“It did hurt,’’ admits captain Kate Moloney. “We went into finals with some really good form and we weren’t able to produce the same in those last two games. But for us it was about moving on, taking what we needed to and really using that to make sure that we keep on improving and we’re ready to go come round one against Magpies.
“It all starts again. Everyone’s zero-zero come round one, and we’re hoping that after all the work we’ve done this pre-season we’re going to be better and stronger in 2018.’’
McKinnis said the last two matches were acknowledged when the full training program resumed in November, but only as a necessary part of the team’s growth.
“That doesn’t define anything for us - bar that we were good last year, but not good enough. It’s about being better than we were. Last year doesn’t count for anything now.’’
There is much to be optimistic about. Six members of last year’s regular starting line-up - including Mwai Kumwenda, for Malawi - either competed at the Commonwealth Games or were selected as Diamonds’ training partners, while the seventh, Chloe Watson, has excelled in recent months.
“Chloe has been outstanding this pre-season. I’ve seen her really take a step up,’’ McKinnis says. “In terms of her leadership and her play on court, she’s been fantastic.’’
Yet a team is the sum of all its parts, and this one also includes developing pair Emma Ryde and Kadie-Ann Dehaney, while a now-injury-free Khao Watts took the opportunity presented by the extended break to have a surgical clean-up of her troublesome knee.
“While there are seven players out there doing the job, we need 10 players that can hit that court at any time and do that seamlessly. So, it’s important for the entire squad to be putting the work in and seeing themselves being on court. And Khao had a lot of issues last year with injury, but she’s been working really hard and it’s important for us to have her as an option, as well.’’
The Vixens open with three consecutive home games, with the local derby against the Magpies at Hisense Arena on 28 April, to be followed by hosting duties against long-time rivals the NSW Swifts (at Margaret Court Arena) and Queensland Firebirds.
After so much change in 2017, the same eight teams return for Suncorp Super Netball’s second season, albeit with the potential for a whole new set of storylines and plot twists.
The same Vixens, but in name only, for what is settled and familiar has also been determinedly evolving, too.
“It’s really special for us to know that we’ve been able to keep the same 10 for the first time ever,’’ says Moloney.
“It is an advantage, and it says a lot about how close our group is, and how much we do love the Vixens.’’
By Linda Pearce, multi-award-winning netball writer with over 30 years experience.