When Rahni Samason thinks back to her first year as a Melbourne Vixens training partner, she recalls a teenager who struggled initially with what was a substantial gulf between the highest level of national competition and the best in the state.
“I think I was 18, going on 19, and it was a huge jump,’’ says Samason, who competes for Ariels in the VNL and was the 2018 ANL MVP while playing for the Victorian Fury. “So having this really good bridge between the two programs is great for the players’ development.’’
The connection is provided by the Vixens Academy, out of Covid mothballs following a false start in 2020, and presently overseen by former Diamond and Melbourne Phoenix star Susan Meaney, also a Vixens’ specialist midcourt coach.
Samason is 23 now, an experienced goaler who is the senior member of the academy’s 15-strong core group. “I’m not that old, but some of the girls in there are 17, 18, so in comparison with someone like Sussu (midcourter Awyen Liai), it just makes me feel so ancient!’’ she says with a laugh.
Yet the fact there is such a diversity of ages and backgrounds provides the reassurance that she is still in the mix, and the hope that her day in the navy Vixens’ dress may come.
“It definitely keeps the fire burning, and getting the feedback from the coaches, and the sense that I’m still in it, definitely makes me want to go for it even more,’’ says Samason, who ruptured her ACL while a Vixens squad member in 2019.
“The Vixens Academy just does get you in touch with that elite environment, and it shows the girls the intensity that you need to train at if you really do want to make it.
“From the academy, as well, you get the opportunity to go into some Vixens' sessions; sometimes they need extra players for match play, and it just makes that jump not as big, and not as scary.
“It’s all focused around executing the basics and making sure we have super-high intensity. They let all of us know that we have the skill, and we are talented, which is why we’re there, but we just need to kind of take it to that next level of honing in on skills and training like a Vixen.’’
Meaney is involved with both programs, and - due to the COVID-19 hiatus - the second academy year is, for all practical purposes, its first. Training for 2021 began in January under Vixens’ assistants Sharelle McMahon and Di Honey, then paused to accommodate other high performance commitments and resumed under Meaney for its second block, in March.
“The main focus is their individual development from a technical and specialist training point of view,’’ says Meaney. “They were invited in to give them that opportunity in a high performance setting so that they would be prepared for any opportunities to be able to step into that Vixens environment.''
Take Gabby Coffey example. Invited to match-play sessions previously, including while incumbent goal defence Jo Weston was recently sidelined through injury, the 20-year-old from Alice Springs is the latest addition to the official training partner roster, but had the benefit of arriving with prior experience of the elite scene.
“We try and replicate that in this Vixens Academy environment; the intensity that the players will be dealing with, and the sort of areas that are focused on in a Vixens training session,’’ says Meaney.
“Not only to give them a bit of exposure to help with their development, but so that they are ready to seamlessly slot in. We want them to be coming in and competing from the first moment they step on court; we want that competitiveness and that high level of execution that is required at that level.’’
Shooters Samason and Emily Andrew and defenders Coffey and Brooke Allan are in the quartet that has already trained with the Vixens this year - not just to boost numbers depleted by injuries, Diamonds duty and international flight delays, but also to give head coach Simone McKinnis and others an up-close glimpse of the talent coming through.
Yet the pathway may also take them elsewhere, with Emma Walters and Melissa Oloamumu having ended up as training partners at the rival Magpies in 2021.
“The way we look at it is that it’s always been “Netball Victoria, We Make Champions','' says Meaney. "So we hope they continue to go onto that end goal of competing and playing for Vixens, but if opportunities to progress their careers are somewhere else, then the idea is that the door never shuts for players from Victoria.’’
The academy is also serving to keep the various strands of the talent pool connected ahead of Victorian Fury selections, with the squad for the new-look post-SSN tournament due to be announced in late May.
“You get young ones, and you get older and more experienced players and it’s very different working with each,’’ says Meaney, whose squad includes defender Maggie Caris, freshly returned from an AFLW stint.
“The academy is just an all-encompassing program that regardless of pathways that people go through and clubs that they’ve been with, we’re really wanting to make sure that we are developing these players to be ready to go.
“I love working with this area, because it’s the rawness and it’s the passion and it’s helping to guide that and assist them on their way to help reach their potential. It's about being in the best possible position to be in training with Vixens so that when the opportunities comes, they're ready to take them.’’
Written by Linda Pearce