Up and coming defender, Gabby Coffey has cemented a spot in the Melbourne Vixens’ squad, signing on as a training partner for the 2021 season.
When Gabby called to tell her mum, Cate, of her promotion to full training partner status with the Melbourne Vixens, it was the only happy news the pair would share on that emotional late-March day.
Both, as it turns out, were in Sydney: Gabby on the Vixens’ pre-season trip north for matches against the Giants, Swifts and Lightning; Cate, unexpectedly, because her own mother, Margaret, had been given just days to live.
Instead of flying out as scheduled, Coffey remained behind to provide support and say her farewells. Back at Homebush, there had been hugs and sympathy from coaches Simone McKinnis and Di Honey and the new squad-mates she had only just learned she would be joining in a formal contracted role.
“Nan had been sick for ages and she passed away that weekend, so it was a bit of a mixed-feeling few days,’’ Coffey recalls. ’’It was really sad, but it was quite a weird experience, and the timing was crazy. It was really nice to get to say goodbye and I was really lucky that I could be there at the end.’’
The training-partner invitation had come two days earlier, with Jo Weston restricted to sideline duties with a calf strain and the news that Liz Watson would miss the season with a foot injury confirmed but yet to be publicly revealed.
After the final trial game, Coffey had asked McKinnis and Vixens general manager Bek Webster for feedback to relay back to Elissa Kent, her VNL coach at the Melbourne University Lightning. And it was as the trio sat in the empty stand at Netball Central that the young defender got the thrillingly unexpected call-up.
“It was incredible,’’ she recalls. “I was like ‘yep, I’d love to’, basically!’’
The 20-year-old had made her debut against the Giants, playing GD against Sophie Dwyer in a borrowed Emily Mannix dress that was a better fit than Kate Moloney’s slightly squeezier spare. Weston, her roommate for the week, was providing advice in her temporary role as an enthusiastic defensive coach for a 186cm youngster who in recent seasons has transitioned from keeper to goal defence.
“I learnt a whole lot from Jo throughout the few days,’’ Coffey says. “She was just giving me a whole lot of tips on how to make it easier for myself in games and forcing the goalers up (the court) a bit.
“One time when I was playing she said ‘this goal attack passes from her left hand, stand on her left side’, and I was like ‘wow, that’s something I would never have thought of’.
“But I guess that’s something that happens when you’re sort of at that next level; the focus on those minor details that actually can change the game a whole lot. I was like ‘all right, this is something I need to remember now’.’’
The speed of the ball movement was the biggest eye-opener; Coffey’s head almost spinning initially, given everything that was going on. Which was understandable, considering that her previous match had been back home in Alice Springs in 2020, playing with school friends and trying not to attract too much whistle and umpire angst for her VNL-style level of close-checking.
While living with her family in the Northern Territory during Victoria’s 2020 Covid lockdowns, the talented Indigenous athlete also continued her University of Melbourne Bachelor of Arts studies remotely, and followed her Victorian Institute of Sport conditioning program from afar.
She had been slightly homesick when she first moved to Melbourne in 2017-18 to board at Caulfield Grammar and complete her VCE - struggling with the cold, and unfamiliar with everything from the plethora of clothes shops to the rumble of public transport and even the proximity of the beach.
But this trip brought her full circle, for as much as she enjoyed an extended desert stint with her parents that included camping trips and more time in the outdoors, there were also elements of Victorian life that she missed.
“I think it did make me realise how much I did love living in Melbourne, and how much I had settled in here and made it like my new home,’’ she says. “As much as I loved being with mum and dad I knew that I loved probably being in Melbourne and training and that even more.’’
She attended the Australian 21/U training camp in Canberra in February, and although the World Youth Cup that had been postponed from 2020 has now been cancelled, there is still the prospect of some international competition against New Zealand, plus also a condensed ANC (formerly ANL) competition in September, VNL duty, and maybe, just maybe, a Vixens’ debut if required.
“I mean, I would love to - that would be the best thing ever. And the plan is to be ready, hopefully, if they ever need me - which at the same time you hope they don’t, because you hope there’s no injuries or anything. But it would be incredible to get on court and I am excited for this year and excited to keep working really hard.’’
The view from the inside has been both revealing and reassuring. Weston, for example, was far less intense than the super-competitive on-court persona Coffey had witnessed from a distance. The reality of her introductory experience in Sydney, and then a cameo in chilly Ballarat against the Thunderbirds, was far warmer.
“I fell in love with the Vixens’ team, all the girls are just so welcoming,’’ says Coffey, who joins Tayla Honey, Hannah Mundy, Jordan Cransberg and Sacha McDonald as 2020 training partners. “It was just so easy to slot in, so I think that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.’’
And now she is, with Vixens Academy and specialist midcourt coach Susan Meaney among those impressed by what she has seen. In particular, Coffey’s willingness to engage and to learn, Meaney recalling a one-on-one defensive session with McKinnis that others may have found daunting.
“But Gabby’s a player who steps up to that challenge and wants to take it,’’ says Meaney. “She’s not shy - and it’s not overconfidence or arrogance, but she’s just confident to give things a go and take opportunities out there on court.
“She trains at a high intensity, she’s got a great work-rate, and she reads the game quite well. She is quite raw but you can see what the possibilities could be for her if she continues to to work on her game. I really love her attitude towards giving it a go.’’
The Melbourne Vixens will begin their title defense in round 1 of Suncorp Super Netball next Saturday, 1 May. The Vixens will host West Coast Fever in a grand final re-match at John Cain Arena.
Tickets are available through Ticketek.