From Bendigo to Mt Buffalo, and Brisbane to Perth, the Vixens have traversed the nation in preparation for opening round of Suncorp Super Netball, against the Queensland Firebirds, at Melbourne Arena on Saturday, 27 April.
So, four months, three new faces, multiple personal fitness bests and several support staff changes after this productive pre-season campaign began, what else does coach Simone McKinnis see?
“There’s definitely a maturity within the group,’’ she says. “If you look at the last couple of years they’ve had some pretty big experiences together, good and bad, and there is a level of maturity in them not just as as netballers and athletes but as leaders as well, which I think holds them in good stead for this year.
“They know the work that’s required. They know the work that was done in 2017… but then not winning a final. They know how hard they worked last year, and then didn’t even make the finals. And they know that they have to all be pushing in the right way, every step and every day.
“And they’re just doing it.’’
Pre-season officially started in December, with shooters Caitlin Thwaites and Ine-Marie Venter lured from the Magpies and South Africa respectively. Tayla Honey had been chosen to fill the midcourt vacancy created by the retirement of Khao Watts, before a ruptured Achilles meant that Lara Dunkley was upgraded from training partner to take Honey’s place.
Vixens great Sharelle McMahon was promoted from specialist to assistant coach, as Di Honey took over at ANL club Victorian Fury, while new strength and conditioning expert John Tascone was installed in October.
“John’s been fantastic. It’s his first time working with netball, and with the group, and that change-up has been really good,’’ McKinnis says. “I felt that we needed to be more resilient and more robust, stronger and fitter.’’
Question to Tascone (but no pressure, of course!): can he deliver?
“I think so. It’s hard for me to say,’’ he smiles. “I’ve come in, they’re already at a very high level, and all the guys that were in the role before have done a really good job.
“Look, they’ve all probably pushed on a little bit in the last couple of weeks and the last couple of months. I think for the most part, they’re all fitter and they’re all stronger - but we need to put the results out on court, I guess!''
With six Diamonds’ squad members in the group, Tascone sees no lack of ability or experience, either on the court or in the gym. Thus, the “one or two-percenters” are what will count. In both places.
“For some of the younger ones that have come on board, it’s been a little bit more of a shock to the system, in terms of the amount of running they have to do, the amount of gym work they need to do,’’ says Tascone. “Those are the ones where we’ve probably seen the biggest change.’’
The Vixens have lost just two of their practice matches - to the Magpies in the final of the official pre-season competition in Brisbane, and against the Fever in the second leg of the WA double last Sunday.
Meanwhile, the new playing trio, headed by key recruit Thwaites, has settled in nicely. “It really was a pretty tough situation for Caitlin, having to look for a new club, but she’s probably one of the hardest-working athletes in terms of training - her workrate has been amazing,’’ says McKinnis.
“But it’s also just her knowledge, her experience and her positivity and encouragement. She really brings players along with her, including the juniors; she’s been really supportive and encouraging and that’s been great to see.’’
Venter brings height, athleticism and versatility to a revamped shooting circle, while Dunkley has impressed with her attitude and willingness to learn, and is capable of filling all three midcourt positions if required.
McKinnis, meanwhile, is ready for her team to emerge from the shadows of the rapidly-approaching SSN opener and into the spotlight that comes with routinely high expectations and a star-studded list.
“It’s the same every year: it feels like it takes forever to come around, and the next thing it’s there,’’ she laughs. “But I feel good about where we’re at, and what we’ve done, and these next couple of weeks I’ll feel good about the fact that we head into round one in a good position, in good shape.’’
Tickets to the Round 1 game against Queensland Firebirds are available here.