Like many young girls around Australia, Alice Teague-Neeld started playing netball to be like her older sisters.
“I was always following them around at netball tournaments on Sundays in Melbourne,” she said. “Then I started playing when I was in prep with friends from school and worked my way up from there.”
It has been a quick journey for the 20-year-old from those humble beginnings to becoming the youngest starting seven player in the Australian conference of the ANZ Championship. Despite her swift rise, Teague-Neeld has never seen herself as particularly ambitious.
“When I was younger, I played a few sports and it got to the point where I chose netball,” she said. “Once I did that, I had my mind set on it and I really did want to play at the highest level I could, but I didn’t really have that thought of ‘I’m going to play for the Vixens.’ I just wanted to do the best I could and if that happened, it’d be amazing.”
Moving through the state teams and the Victorian Fury, who compete in the Australian Netball League, Teague-Neeld caught the eye of Melbourne Vixens coach Simone McKinnis and before long the youngster was offered a contract with the team. It became a life-changing experience.
“It was a massive eye-opener,” she said. “But in a really positive way. It was just so different to anything I’d done before. To train and play against some of the people I’d been watching over the years – they’re my idols and I’m playing with them! And then to have Sharelle McMahon as a specialist coach, who is someone I’ve always looked up to, it’s amazing. I learned so much in that first year – it was such a big step up for me.”
Netball is still not a fully professional sport, and while some of the more established players are able to make a full-time career out of it, younger players often need to work outside the sport. While it can be difficult to balance the growing demands of netball with an external career, Teague-Neeld believes she has found the right balance.
“I’m studying physiotherapy and this year I’ve gone to part-time study to help fit it in with my netball,” she said. “It’s really helped and I’m part of an elite athlete program at uni. They’re really good at fitting exams and assessments around training times. I think it’s about when you do have time, just making sure you do it!”
Studying physiotherapy as an elite athlete also has its benefits, with Teague-Neeld able to draw on some pretty high quality advice.
“Sometimes when we’re on the bus away to a game or I’m on the physio table, I’ll just chat with the physios,” she said. “I’ll tell them if I’ve got a test coming up or ask them about a certain muscle. It’s really good! I think they like helping me out and sharing their knowledge.”
Teague-Neeld spent most of the 2015 season on the bench, adapting to the new environment and learning from the more experienced players. She was preparing to play a similar role in 2016, when her teammate and starting Goal Attack Tegan Philip suffered a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury.
“When it first happened, everyone was devastated,” Teague-Neeld said. “But as a team we knew what we had to do for this season. I knew there was an opportunity for me to step up and I was happy to take it on. As devastated as I was for Tegan, these things happen in sport – it’s just how it goes.”
And the opportunity did come, with coach McKinnis opting to put her faith in the young player rather than recruiting externally for a replacement to take on the starting role.
“My time to step up came a bit earlier than I thought it would!” Teague-Neeld said. “In the first game of the season when Simone said I was the starting goal attack, I was so nervous, but also excited and just ready to take it on.”
Despite those nerves, Teague-Neeld looks the steely professional on court, rarely giving away her emotions and keeping her cool in pressure situations.
“I think that’s always been a part of my nature and the way I’ve played netball since I was little,” she said. “I don’t intentionally go out there and try to put on a poker face. There are definitely times out there when I am stressed. I may not show it, but I am!”
After a slow start to the 2016 season, the Vixens have bounced back hard – a win over the West Coast Fever on Sunday has put them in the box seat to secure the third finals place in the Australian conference. According to Teague-Neeld it was a 15-goal loss to the New South Wales Swifts in round one that served as a wake-up call.
“It really shocked us,” she said. “We had a great pre-season and we were feeling really good about how we were progressing. We did a lot of work at training after that, Simone trained us hard. We knew we had more to offer and we needed to address that as a team.”
Looking to the future it seems the only way is up for this young woman and with a new competition in the works for 2017, there are exciting times ahead. But Teague-Neeld isn’t thinking about anything past the current season and what she needs to do to help secure the premiership trophy for her team.
“We’re all just focussed on working hard and taking each game as it comes to finish this year off as best as we can,” she said. “I think we have a really good chance. There will be a time when everything calms down and we’ll be able to focus on the new competition, but at the moment I’m just focussed on the team and how we put out our best performance.”