Once - or, even, twice - a week between game one of 2014 and Round 11 of this season, Melbourne Vixens Head Coach, Simone McKinnis, has addressed her team in the locker-room and read out Liz Watson’s name in her starting seven.
That’s from game No. 1 when a nervous debutant was elevated to the primary list late in the pre-season in place of the pregnant Elissa Kent, to game No. 99 as a superstar Co-Captain with Kate Moloney.
During all that time, the ultra-consistent Watson did not miss a match. Not one. And then, with her century imminent, a right ankle injury suffered against the NSW Swifts three weeks ago put the almost-centurion’s milestone appearance on hold.
“I think I jinxed myself!’’ she said before Sunday’s limited-minutes return against the Sunshine Coast Lightning in Suncorp Super Netball’s final round for 2020.
“Look, I’ve had 99 games pretty much injury-free, so I’m pretty lucky there, but it’s very frustrating and I’ve just been doing everything I can the last couple of weeks to get back out on court.
“So I haven’t even really thought about the hundred - it’s more about getting out on court and getting that confidence and flow back before finals. So if it’s two minutes, if it’s a quarter, a half, whatever it is, it’s amazing.
“It’s probably not the 100th that I’d hoped for, but, look, that’s not the focus at the moment. We’ve got finals next week, so it’s a bigger picture right now.’’
As a netball watcher Watson admits she is 'terrible!', yet 'durable' remains an apt description, and 'strong' is another adjective that recurs. Indeed, Vixens assistant coach Di Honey calls the midcourter 'a Mack truck'.
Watson laughs that she is unsure whether to take that as a compliment. She should. One suspects she does.
There are genetics to thank for her powerful I-dare-you-to-knock-me-off-the-ball frame, but also a famous dedication and commitment to preparation.
Not to mention a childhood as the only girl in a robust boys’ club of brothers, uncles and cousins and a dad who still speaks of netball in footy terms (tackles, etc.) The Watsons’ backyard was a place to go hard. Or go harder.
None of that vast support team was at USC Stadium for Lizzy’s century against the Lightning. Not parents Manuela and Neil, nor her famous Nonna - proud curator of the pictorial hall of fame back in Melbourne’s north. But all will be cheering from afar, given that circumstances dictate they can not attend in person.
“I always get 12 memberships at the start of the year and then all get taken up by someone,’’ says Watson. "So my parents and my brothers, my partner Hamish, Nonna, she would be there - and I have to wear bright coloured shoes, she says, so she can pick me out on the court!
“They would have loved to be there, obviously, and even if we were playing interstate and they were all able to travel, they would probably have come, as well. So that’s obviously disappointing, but I know they’ll be cheering very loudly; they can’t get together, obviously, so they’ll probably be having their own little parties back home.’’
The Vixens are Watson’s second family; the place where she has built on her natural strength to consolidate one of her natural assets. Another motivator - slightly ironic given the events of the past few weeks - has been the desire to minimise visits to the physio’s table (although nothing personal, she would like Steve Hawkins and his excellent team to know).
“I’m not that typical zippy, agile wing attack; I’m probably more the strength side of things, so I learnt quite quickly to play to my strengths,'' Watson says.
“I love that you can kind of change the position to what you want it to be, and the coaches gave me that belief and confidence. Just telling me that ‘one of your strengths is your strength and your drive and your attacking movement, so just play to those’.’’
As to how Watson has evolved in her seven seasons: “When I started you run on a lot of adrenalin, and it’s really exciting, everything’s new, and you just want to be the best.
"I asked so many questions when I was young, and I think that’s really helped me now, is learning from the best.
"I had the best as my teammates, and the best as my coach, so I’ve been very lucky with the netball I’ve played in Victoria to go into the Vixens program and just have pretty much the best of the best there supporting me.
“Then as I’ve gotten older I think I’ve matured a lot, I’ve relaxed a lot as well, and I just love the game day. Playing the game is my favourite part.
“Yes, I love training and all that other stuff, but that’s why I’m loving this hub, because we play games all the time. Less training! When you go out and play you can just be yourself, and be free; there's less restrictions than a training drill."
But still an example to set, for the player elevated this season to the Co-Captaincy alongside Moloney, her great friend and long-time teammate.
"Simone sees me as one of the senior leaders of the Vixens, so looking back to my round one to now, who would have thought that that would be the case?’’
So. Back that first game against the Northern Mystics. That first splash of Watson ink on the Vixens’ team sheet. Watson recalls the moment coach McKinnis announced her at centre, where the debutant's opponent would be the great Laura Langman.
“Simone read out centre and my name and then she looked up and said ‘it’s ok, I believe in you’. And I was like ‘ok, yep, yep’. Probably didn’t breathe,’’ Watson laughs.
“And then in the tunnel, just before we were about to run out, Bianca (Chatfield) came over and gave me a big hug and said ‘don’t worry, we’ve got you, we’ll do this together’, and I kind of relaxed from that moment on.
“I walked out, I looked in the crowd, I saw all my family, all my friends - I felt like we had everyone there that I knew! - and it was just an unreal game. We won, and I played centre for pretty much the whole game. Yeah, it was an exciting time.’’
Still is. “I love that I’ve been able to play 100 games at the one club.’’
All of them alongside Moloney, who started with the Vixens one year earlier and whose own century alerted Watson to the unexpected fact that hers, too, was close.
While the subsequent delay was unfortunate, the far longer wait has been for another Grand Final. Watson played in a Premiership in her fairytale first season that also included Diamonds’ selection after, we suggest, about five minutes.
Now 26, the midcourt champion has a greater appreciation of how fortunate that early success was, and how rare such moments are.
There may yet be another.
Written by Linda Pearce
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