In the lead-up to Wednesday’s Bupa VNL grand finals, the Geelong Cougars’ Championship Grade team has already claimed a title that has nothing to do with goals scored.
Among head coach Gerard Murphy’s squad are a league-high three mothers – Julia Woolley, Jess Stanfield and Katelyn Amor. Between them, the trio will have five children at the State Netball and Hockey Centre for the decider against the Casey Demons.
Their ages ranged from 10 months to seven years (kids) and up to their mid-30s (mums). Woolley’s primary schoolers Victoria and Charlotte often join in the shuttle runs at Monday training, where all are welcome, and Murphy’s mantra is that life and families come before netball, so sometimes the sport must play second fiddle.
“Gez is extremely understanding and very flexible. He’s very down to earth, really accommodating and he understands that we’re not young, so we don’t make up excuses,’’ says Stanfield, the veteran defender and mother of two.
“If you genuinely can’t be there (training), there’s a reason, and he just accepts that, there’s no guilt associated with it if you can’t get there. It is what it is, and his approach to it has been amazing, as far as a coach goes.’’
The mature-aged nature of the Cougars list may also have something to do with it, says Stanfield. “I’m not sure that there’s a lot of people our age – or, well, my age, especially – playing!’’ laughs the 35-year-old defender.
She gave birth to daughter Emily almost 10 months ago, and, despite having been far more active in her second pregnancy than her first almost four years earlier, was unsure when approached by Murphy about a possible return.
“I was like ‘oh, I really don’t think I’m up to this any more’,’’ said Stanfield, who was reluctant to commit while uncertain how her body would stand up.
“So I became like a bit of an add-on and a fill-in when the ANL girls were out, and I kind of got the taste for it again. I think I filled in from round three and have played every game since.’’
She also got the sense that the Cougars, runners-up last year, were going to be highly-competitive again. And so they have been, taking the direct semi-final path to the big dance and beaten the surging Casey newcomers – whose resident mum is Christie Urie – both times in the rounds.
“I said to Gez in about round six, ‘is there any opportunity to kind of stay?’. And he was like ‘yeah, of course!’ Because I want to be a part of it,’’ says Stanfield.
“It’s a great club and it’s got an amazing culture, which I think has also helped us as mums slot back in, because even the girls who don’t have kids are just so accepting and understanding of the situation.’’
Amor, too, appreciates all the support. Having made her post-natal comeback in Division One last year, the midcourter will have 16-month-old daughter Macy in the stand on Wednesday night for the first time.
“I think she’ll be excited, but more interested in running up and down the stairs, to be honest,’’ smiles Amor, 30. “I’ll hear her probably yelling in the stands.’’
Sounds like she might, indeed, for the happy toddler is laughing loudly in the background during our phone interview, her mother believing she is a better parent when netball is in the mix.
“I thought I’d have another crack, but I didn’t mind if I played Div 1 this year. It’s nice to have a break from being mum all the time, getting back to peak fitness and just getting out there and playing.
“I think I’m a better mum for it, being able to play and not just be mum all the time, I suppose. And it’s great having the kids around the sport, as well. I play locally in the GFL, too, and Macey comes to training on Thursdays and comes to the games on Saturdays and she just loves it.’’
At the Cougars, Woolley’s younger daughter, Charlotte, is particularly keen on doing the team activation and warm-up. “All the coaches and support team are always happy to chip in and keep the kids occupied or help them to the bathroom,’’ says Murphy.
“It makes a huge difference having such experienced players, and with their other priorities it’s no stuffing around – we get in and do what we need to do and get out.
“I’m really proud of how they communicate and the way they manage their commitments. I hope to see more women playing at top level after having children.’’
For Stanfield, who has shut herself away in the bedroom for our chat, being based in Torquay adds to the time she needs to allow for training and match nights. The logistics can be the greatest challenge, given how much more preparation goes into the simple act of leaving the house.
But, when she plays, she describes son Oliver – almost five – as her biggest supporter, certain as he is that mum has always done a great job. “It’s very cute. All he does is start waving from the sidelines and goes ‘mum, mum’, and I’m like ‘mate, I can’t keep waving to you.’’
Not when there is a game to be won. And, on Wednesday night, a big one about to be played.
The Bupa VNL Grand finals begin at 6.50pm on Wednesday night at the State Netball and Hockey Centre.
All games will be live streamed across each teams’ Facebook pages.
Written by Linda Pearce