Smith and McDonald’s pathway to the top

Sacha McDonald and Allie Smith’s shared history dates back to a selection trial for the State Schools Victoria 12 and under team. Their journey along the renowned Netball Victoria pathway has continued, in tandem, ever since.

Back in that primary school tryout, goal attack McDonald even played directly against goal defence Smith – in those roles, and the reverse. McDonald, originally from Edenhope, near Horsham, has remained a goaler, which was also the starting position for Leopold-based Smith, before a more recent switch to defence. 

“It’s funny how we’ve kind of progressed along together, and to different ends of the court,’’ says McDonald of her fellow 19-year-old, Melbourne Vixens’ and Australian 19/U squad member and recent premiership-winning teammate with the Victorian Fury in the Deakin University ANL. 

Yet, both for height and versatility reasons, both have also begun the transition to the midcourt, as the sport increasingly becomes home to bigger and stronger athletes, especially in both circles. 

Both stand at around 180cm, and Smith is now creeping from wing defence towards a potential extra role at centre, while McDonald eyes wing attack as her second position, even if GA has always been her natural home. 

Which means, typically, that the latter grew up idolising the great Sharelle McMahon. “Yep. Of course I did,’’ McDonald laughs when discussing the Vixens’ assistant coach. 

“Sharelle was obviously a big idol within the netball world, and in my world, too. Her and (former Melbourne Phoenix/Vixens midcourter) Natasha Chokljat were probably my two idols growing up.’’ 

Growing up, Smith was a fan of the Firebirds’ Gabi Simpson and of foundation Vixen Sharni Layton, and, along with the likes of Simone McKinnis OAM, Tegan Philip and Emily Mannix has become used to making multiple trips along the Geelong Road each week to training and games. 

And by being part of the Geelong Cougars’ winning Bupa VNL Championship team last week, Smith completed a set that started with the 19s in 2016 and extended to Division One the following year. 

Like McDonald, she has also been invited to the past two 19/U national talent camps at the Australian Institute of Sport under Michelle Wilkins, where both have relished the experience and exposure to elite specialist coaching. 

Smith gets plenty of that at the Vixens, too, helped by a couple of wing defence greats named McKinnis and (Renae) Ingles. There could be few better teachers. “It’s been amazing. I’ve loved every second of it,’’ says the nursing student, who followed her brother Josh into a sport that runs in the family – including her dad’s cousin, the long-time Victorian netball identity Gillian Lee.

ANL was a huge highlight for both teenagers, McDonald having grown up on a 3500-acre farm in the Wimmera as part of a highly-talented and  competitive sporting family that includes Melbourne AFL-playing brothers Tom and Oscar.

“Going from being the baby of the (Fury) team to being a vice-captain within the matter of a year was a really big step for me, so it’s something that I look back really fondly on,’’ says McDonald, noting the squad’s ability to build cohesion over a season that culminated with grand final success under new coach Di Honey.

“To do it with the group of staff and players and coaches that we had was the icing on the cake.’’ 

Both will be eligible for World Youth Cup selection in 2021, and while Smith was one of the original Vixens’ squad members named for 2019, McDonald only received her call-up after the unfortunate ACL injury to Rahni Samason in what she admits has been “a whirlwind of a 10 months’’. 

The latest progression came when  Suncorp Super Netball benches were expanded to help manage the return of players from the senior World Cup, and McDonald was included in the 12 for the round 10 clash with the Thunderbirds at Melbourne Arena. 

“It’s been great to be kind of thrown into that environment. It’s another level up, which is something that is the next step for me. To be in that 12 was just an amazing experience, and something that I haven’t been exposed to before. 

“So having the taste of the 12 was really nice and if that’s something that comes to me in the future I’d obviously take it, and it is something that I look forward to.’’

Learn more about the Netball Victoria pathway here.

Written by Linda Pearce

Photo: Getty Images