Carmel Wright and Liz Upton courtside for two decades

More than two decades ago when Carmel Wright and Liz Upton started as netball volunteers, they never imagined the sport would take them to a World Cup and three Commonwealth Games, annual Diamonds’ Tests, Fast5, and (almost) every Vixens home game ever played.

Back then, in the 1990s, it was still the first incarnation of the national league, known as the Commonwealth Bank Trophy, and Victoria was represented by the fledgling Melbourne Phoenix and Melbourne Kestrels.

On match days, Upton recalls a multi-tasking team of “about six of us who did absolutely everything”, compared with what she laughingly calls “the cast of thousands” present in these more professional times.

The Sunday of ‘Volunteer Week’ will be a typical Super Netball day for Upton and Wright. They will arrive more than two hours before the Vixens host the Swifts in the top-of-the-ladder clash at Melbourne Arena to ensure they take care of both teams’ needs.

“We just make sure that everything is OK in their room, that they’ve got everything they need,’’ says Wright. “I deliver all the team lists to the media, all those kind of things, then during the game I spend more time back-of-house checking that the catering’s arrived, or the ice has arrived, making sure the umpires have their ice bath.

“So all those little things, but in the end it’s all those little things that make the whole picture great.’’

Upton has a bag packed with everything from lollies (a favourite of the Sunshine Coast Lightning), to scissors and Blu-Tack. “I’ve even held a rubbish bin for a player who was a bit overwhelmed to spew in, and then I was running sheets to someone else,’’ she says. “As typical women, I think you just do what you have to do to make it all happen.’’

The pinnacle for Wright was her (paid) role as competition manager at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, while assisting in “match management” at the same competition also counts as Upton’s highlight.

Both are proud to have heard from Vixens team manager Lisa Taylor that opposition teams speak of how much they enjoy playing in Melbourne because of the care and support they receive, and cherish the involvement. Upton, indeed, scheduled her recent hip replacement surgery so that she would be ready for round one, and the 65-year-old says she has only missed one game since her involvement began with the former Metro Cup.

“Anything anyone at Netball Victoria or Netball Australia has asked me to do, I’ve only said no once: when I had to go to my niece’s Debut,’’ says Upton. “I’ve been really lucky that no family things have fallen on game days, and I’ve been able to manage my time around doing what I love doing; which is working for the Vixens, Netball Victoria and Netball Australia.’’

Having had it noted publicly that she had volunteered at more games than the great Sharelle McMahon had played, Wright was absent during the 18 months she spent in India from mid-2009 bringing an unfamiliar sport to a vast and chaotic land.  “So it wasn’t a complete break, but Liz loves to rub it in,’’ smiles the 59-year-old. “I think if we look back, she might have missed more than one game, but we don’t tell her that!’’

Friendships are a big factor in what keeps them going, and coming back, while there is also great admiration for the “inspiring” Vixens’ playing group and the fine example they set as role models for the young fans with whom they so generously interact.

Indeed, life without netball scarcely seems like an option.

“I’m getting to 60 years of age soon, and I think the time’s probably coming when I’m going to have to retire,’’ says Wright. “It’s kind of horrible to think that, because I don’t know what I’d do with myself, really!

“It’s been interesting just to see all the changes and the different competitions and it’s got better and better over the years. Netball’s given me so many opportunities, and it’s just been great to be a part of it.’’

Written by Linda Pearce