Games record-holder Tegan Philip’s 11th pre-season with the Melbourne Vixens has been like no other. From mid-March; 10 weeks of iso-training. Then last week’s return in staggered groups of four, with physical distancing, temperature checks and a series of health questions at the door.
Nor was recruit Kate Eddy’s first pre-season as a full Vixens team member one that she - or anyone - could have predicted. Having started conventionally enough last November, a lack of normality has been the theme in the strange days since the advance of COVID-19 shut down world sport.
In the original Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) fixture, the Queen’s Birthday long weekend was scheduled to host Round 6, including the Victorian derby against the Magpies. Instead, it marked the end of the first week of the latest training block, as teams build towards a revised start date of August 1. Somewhere. Somehow.
So how did Philip feel when she heard the news there would be a full SSN season, and that the timing of Round 1 had finally been confirmed?
“Woo hoo! Can I say that?! Yeah, it was just nice to know,’’ laughs the veteran, whose next game will be her 119th.
“I was certainly excited, not just for myself, but also for the likes of Tayla (Honey), who ruptured her Achilles last year and hasn’t been able to play, and for Kate Eddy, because it’s her first year back at the Vixens. To have those feelings for the girls, it’s just cool.’’
Eddy, too, was thrilled - the former Swift having returned to her home city, where she was a Vixens training partner and Victorian Fury team member in 2017. More recently, the 23-year-old has moved again - into a Kew share house with Honey and Sacha McDonald.
Yet, as familiar as Eddy is with her Vixens’ teammates, Monday’s training resumption alongside Kate Moloney, Lizzy Watson and Honey was slightly stressful, too. The replacement at wing defence for the re-retired Renae Ingles found it testing, but was nevertheless comforted by the fact she was not alone.
“I was very, very, very, very nervous. I remember texting Tay all day, I was like "I can’t eat properly." It was like I was going back to school for the first day or something, I was like "oh my God!" But it was great.
“As nervous as I was, I was very excited to get back and see everybody. I missed the back end of last season, so everything being pushed back and being up in the air if we were playing or not playing was upsetting and disappointing I guess, because I was like “I want to play netball."
“Training by yourself was a bit of a test to see how mentally tough we were, because some of those sessions were really hard. But to get back with the group, it was so much better having someone next to you struggling at the same time!’’
Even so, the encouragement had to be limited to the verbal kind. No high fives, taps on the back or hands-in at huddles. And small groups, not one big one, for court work. Plus physical separation in the gym.
No hanging around together after training, heading out for brunch, or discussing what’s on the dinner menu. No arriving early to chat or hanging around once the one-hour window for each quarter is closed. "Weird", says Eddy, and "unnatural". But far better than the alternative, which was no season at all.
“We were all told not to get our hopes up too much,’’ says Eddy, who spent much of her downtime when not studying or training in boyfriend Tom Phillips’ home gym, doing jigsaws. Lots of them.
“So when (the news) was actually released - I think we were told 24 hours before - and went public I was like "wow, this is actually happening. I’m going to training tomorrow and actually going to see my friends, and play netball, and somewhat learn the days of the week again, because you forget what day it is in all of this."
Yet while Eddy has used the time off the court to continue strengthening the ankle that ended her 2019 campaign with the flag-winning Swifts, Philip suffered a small setback after tripping while chasing a stray ball in her street, and did not join her teammates until Thursday.
She shouted a verbal 'hug' to all before that opening gym session, and the next day was back on the court alongside fellow shooters Mwai Kumwenda, Caitlin Thwaites and training partner, McDonald.
The focus: “Knowing that we’ve got seven weeks now until it starts, just getting our touch on with the ball is probably the main thing we’re doing.
"Obviously we’re not contesting at the moment, anyway, so it’s just getting a sense of our movements on court and working with each other in terms of our passing and things like that. Just getting that work together that we haven’t been able to do."
A self-described 'homebody', Philip admits to enjoying her time in lockdown in Geelong, during which she continued her secondary teaching studies and relished driving nowhere much at all.
Ever the enthusiast, the veteran shooter has also found some upside in this new world of pre-season protocols, including the chance to do specific work in smaller groups. A spaced-out two-gym setup at the VIS has also tweaked an environment that had become second nature over Philip's 10 previous pre-seasons.
“I know. So many! I said to Sue White the doctor "you’ve got to find the positives in situations like this" and I see this as one of them: that we can change things up and do things a little bit differently to what we have been able to in the past."
Written by Linda Pearce