Allie Smith was two bites into a banana at half-time of the Round 10 game against the West Coast Fever when she learnt she was about to officially become a Melbourne Vixen.
Trailing by 11 goals, coach Simone McKinnis announced a defensive reshuffle, moving Jo Weston back to keeper against the damaging Jhaniele Fowler, Kate Eddy across to goal defence, and introducing Smith for her debut at WD.
“So that was a shock to the system,’’ Smith recalls. “I definitely put the food to the side and had a bit of a conversation with Simone and the girls and they obviously said what needed to come out in my game.
“Simone said just to play my own game, bring my speed into it, and fresh legs were needed, too. She said ‘keep the energy high, have a great attitude and just go hard for any ball that you can get your hands on’.’’
For the 20-year-old from Leopold, on the Bellarine Peninsula side of her coach’s home town of Geelong, a moment to remember was also well-received among the Vixens group sharing hub life in Brisbane.
One of five Victorians named recently in the preliminary Australian 21/U squad ahead of the postponed World Youth Cup, this is Smith’s second year as part of the extended Vixens squad.
The Geelong Cougars product represented her state from primary school level upwards and successfully along the junior pathway at every age level, then played in the 2019 Deakin University Australian Netball League premiership with the Victorian Fury under Di Honey, her old school coach at Geelong Grammar, and long-time Vixens’ assistant.
But this has been next level, with court-time in the Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) version of the famous navy dress a coveted step up.
“When my name was called out at wing defence, the girls’ eyes all lit up for me and they were all so proud and excited,’’ says Smith.
“And I guess being one of the younger ones in the team, they see how hard we all work as training partners and to get that reward is amazing.’’
Amid the bum taps, hand claps and congratulations, there was also a level of nervousness when running out for the second half that Smith laughs was “very, very high’’.
It helped her to touch the ball a few times during the short warm-up. It will also come as no surprise to learn that co-captain Kate Moloney approached the first-gamer on several occasions during those few minutes and reminded her to smile. Enjoy it. Have fun.
The impressive result; two intercepts, three deflections and 30 Nissan Net Points, while helping to shut down Fever youngster Emma Cosh and, thus, the supply to Fowler.
Meanwhile, team-wise, a mighty comeback from what blew out to a 14-goal deficit at one point in the third term eventually salvaged a desperate draw that was more win than loss, as these things go.
“A lot of those girls are actually my idols, so playing alongside them was really amazing,’’ says Smith, who describes as 'overwhelming' the number of congratulatory messages waiting from family and friends when she turned on her phone.
Acknowledging the step up in speed and passing accuracy of SSN, Smith nevertheless believes her exposure to the Vixens’ elite training environment meant the jump was not as great as it might have been.
“At Vixens, the level of expectation is always high,’’ she says. “No matter whether we’re playing, training or doing conditioning sessions, we expect each other to perform, and we do train hard and we do train like we’re playing a game, so that energy was very similar to our training games, which was great.’’
The contrast with that familiarity has been a wildly unexpected 2020. For everyone.
Along with Jacqui Newton and Elle McDonald (who have also been blooded this season), and Sacha McDonald - Smith’s state teammate since the 12/U level - (who, so far, has not), an immensely difficult time has provided the four erstwhile training partners with an opportunity none could have foreseen.
“Obviously we’re all just so grateful we actually get this opportunity to be up here in this environment, getting this experience under our belt,’’ says Smith, who is spending some of her non-netball time working remotely for Geelong waste management business, QEST Environments.
“We couldn’t ask for anything more, and getting to debut, getting some court time, is unbelievable. We don’t expect it but we’re always ready if our opportunity does come about. Just coming up here is amazing and we appreciate every minute.’’
Having started as a shooter and then switched during her junior years to become a circle defender, the 180-centimetre Smith is gradually creeping up the court.
She is still a cover goal defence if needed, and working to add centre to her repertoire, while privileged to be learning the wing defence role from McKinnis, one of the greatest ever to have played the often under-rated position.
Smith has had two tastes now, including a six-minute cameo in the third quarter of last Saturday's defeat of the Magpies, and relished every second. Predictably, after being mid-mouthful when her name was called the first time, one of Victoria’s rising stars is hungry for more.
“Yeah, always. I guess that’s in my nature, to grab any opportunity with two hands and really make the most of it,’’ she says. “So if I am lucky enough to get that opportunity again, I’ll hopefully be able to get out there and have a red-hot crack.’’
Written by Linda Pearce