“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Shakespeare could well have been describing Queensland Firebird Caitlyn Nevins – the shy, short country kid turned world-class midcourter who could this year make ANZ Championship history.
Erin Delahunty

14 Jul 2016 - 7:30 PM  UPDATED 15 Jul 2016 - 8:15 AM

If Nevins’ Firebirds can get over the NSW Swifts in Monday night’s Australian conference final – and go all the way to claim back-to-back ANZ premierships – the 170cm 29-year-old will become the first, and only, player to win three consecutive flags. Her Firebirds will also become the only franchise to win successive Trans-Tasman titles, in the final year of the competition.

But Nevins, who won the 2014 premiership with the Melbourne Vixens and last year in heart-stopping style when her Firebirds snatched victory from the Swifts in the dying seconds, isn’t especially interested in her place in netball folklore.

“It’s not something I think about,” she told SBS Zela. “It’s really special to win even one premiership and not every player gets to experience that, but for me, the last three seasons have been quite different and unique,” Nevins said.

“It was awesome to win it at the Vixens, but I sat on the bench for most of the season because you had Madi Robinson, the best wing attack in the world, playing the position I play. It was a big decision for me to move my life to Queensland and then to win in a thriller like we did last year … was amazing. Even though we have a similar core group of players this year, there are new faces in our team, so it brings a new dimension to this season. Every season is really individual and you tackle them in different ways,” she said.

Nevins, who was raised in the small town of Echuca on the Victoria/New South Wales border and is a podiatrist, said she is focused on making history for her team, rather than for herself.

“The three in a row thing isn’t something that comes into it. As a team, we believe we can win it this year. We have the team to do it. We just have to keep winning.”

Nevins is the first to admit she has defied the odds to become one of Australia’s best netballers – evidenced by her invitation to train with the national side, the Diamonds, earlier this year.

Like most country kids, Nevins played a variety of sports growing up, but excelled at basketball and netball. Coming through the netball ranks at the Echuca and District Netball Association and later the Echuca United Football/Netball Club, Nevins was “tall for her age” and played shooter. Neither would last.

As the years went on, and she started trialling for state teams in both netball and basketball, Nevins realised “there were some tall women out there!” She switched to the midcourt and at 17 decided to focus solely on netball. “In lots of ways, my pathway wasn’t as direct as some players,” Nevins said.

“I came through secondary schools state teams and then starting making Victorian state teams. I was starting to peak in the under-21 age bracket and two weeks out from the nationals, I ruptured my ACL. After that, I fell out of the high performance loop and had to use the VNL (Victorian Netball League) and ANL (Australian Netball League) competitions to prove myself.”

And prove herself she did. Playing for VNL side the Yarra Valley Grammar Ariels, Nevins won two league MVPs and was rewarded with promotion to the Victorian Fury in the ANL and then finally the Melbourne Vixens in 2013 as a replacement player, then 2014 as a contracted player.

“It was absolutely huge for me to get to the ANZ Championship and I was lucky it was so close to home. At the end of the 2014 season, I was reflecting and looking at my goals. I felt I could perform out there on the court, but in that environment at the Vixens, with someone like Madi (Robinson), I wasn’t going to get that chance; that was just the reality,” Nevins, who married partner Sam in November 2014, said.

Then Firebirds coach Roselee Jencke called.

“I knew there was no guarantees of court time up there and that I would have to work really hard to earn the respect of the coaches and new team mates – and move my entire life – but when I was given that opportunity, I decided to grab it with both hands. It was a bit of a gamble, but I don’t regret it one bit,” Nevins said.

“I was lucky too because from brother Ben has lived in Brisbane for a few years, so I had some kind of family support, which makes a huge difference.”

Team is the theme

From early in the 2015 ANZ season, the versatile midcourter’s chemistry with the Firebirds’ 196cm goal-scoring machine, Jamaican Romelda Aiken, and code-hopper Gretel Tippett, was potent. “The connection I’ve developed with those girls is awesome. You can be the most amazing player, but if you can’t combine as a team, you’re not going to get anywhere,” she said.

“I have worked really hard on learning how to feed our shooters; how they like the ball, how they don’t, how to communicate with them. You have to dedicate that time to figuring out those relationships. It’s been exciting for us to develop as a combination, to create headaches for our opposition. We have great connections now,” Nevins said.

It may be coincidence, but from Nevins’ first game in the purple dress, in round one last year, the Firebirds went on an unmatched 21-game winning streak. It was broken by their nemesis, the Swifts, who beat the Birds by four in Sydney. When they play the Swifts, Nevins’ direct opponent is often Kiwi superstar, Laura Langman. The Silver Ferns vice-captain is known for her physical prowess, with one of the best engines in international netball.

Wanting to not only match, but beat players the ilk of Langman, Nevins has also worked hard in the gym – especially between her first and second seasons in Brisbane – to become the complete player.

“The physicality of our game, especially through the midcourt, has absolutely gone up in recent years. It’s tough, physical and unbelievably fast. You need to be able to take the ball strongly and hold your player off. You have to be able to take the knocks and bumps.

"Anyone who says netball is a non-contact sport obviously hasn’t watched the game very closely. I just about got coat-hangered in a game recently.”

After identifying “strength and size” as weaknesses at the end of 2015, Nevins teamed up with conditioning coach Dan Tewson, who worked with heavyweight world title contender, boxer Alex Leapai and in consultation with the Firebirds’ strength and conditioning coach, Brynley Abad, began a new training regime. More weights, less running, was the simple formula.

“I wanted to improve my presence on the court, to gain that extra edge, all those little ‘one percenters’ matter. That meant two to three gym sessions each week, lifting weights and less running. My body type is probably more naturally suited to running, but I knew I had to get in and lift, getting the technique right at the same time, to build up that strength.

“I felt heavy to begin with, but by the end of our team pre-season, I felt stronger, faster and lighter. I can now make those repeated efforts. Not just one lead, but two and three and four. I can keep providing leads for my attacking partners. It’s something I am continuing to work on, because as an athlete, if you’re not working on yourself, you’ll get overtaken by others. I am constantly redefining and fine tuning.”

Fine-tuning is something Nevins has had to do her whole netball life.

“I’m a big believer in not trying to copy off somebody else. Find out what your strengths are and play to them. Over the years, I was told I was too short, or not fast enough and maybe wasn’t the star player at junior level. I was a good player, but not necessarily the best. I was in and out of the pathway, but gee, I loved it, and I was always happy to do the extra training, to work with the coach on what I needed to work on. It’s so important to have that passion, to do what you love. You never know where it might take you.”

Good things come to those who work hard

Passion and old-fashioned hard work might take Nevins all the way to the international stage. Along with defenders Courtney Bruce and Maddy Turner, Nevins attended the Diamonds’ squad camp at Netball Australia’s Centre of Excellence in Canberra earlier this year as an “invitee” or training partner.

Nevins’ voice shakes as she tells of the moment. “I was treating a patient at work one day and I heard my mobile go off. When I had a break, I picked up the phone and saw it was a missed call from Lisa Alexander (the national coach) and my heart skipped a beat. I called straight back and she invited me to the camp. I’ll never forget that moment.”

“Being a Diamond is absolutely on my list. It’s the pinnacle of netball. My immediate goal is to make the actual squad and put myself in a good position to be selected to play in one of the Diamonds games.”  

She’ll know in early August, when Alexander names her 2016/17 squad for a busy international schedule.

Nevins’ captain at the Firebirds, Laura Geitz, who also captains the world champion Diamonds, knows Nevins as well as anyone and described her as the side’s secret weapon in attack.

“She is a very, very smart player,” Geitz wrote in the Courier Mail recently.

“She knows how to set up the shooters, has good variety in her game and continues to deliver a high standard. The girl we call “Dark Horse’’ or “China Doll’’ (because she looks like Snow White) has an awesome attitude.”

Geitz said Nevins will shine as a Diamond when she gets her chance. “I couldn’t be happier for Caitlyn. She is worthy of a place in the Diamonds squad because she looks right at home playing alongside internationals every week at the Firebirds. She will not let her country down when she gets the chance to put on that green and gold dress.”

The kid from Echuca who was told she too short, too slow, who didn’t peak at the right time, fell out of the system when she did her ACL, came through a second-tier league and sat on the bench for a season while the best player in the world wore the bib she wanted, can’t wait to prove her right.

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