It took just one phone call from NSW Swifts coach Rob Wright to bring Abbey McCulloch home to Sydney after her stint at the Queensland Firebirds.
“Obviously I’m a NSW girl, so I had always wanted to play for the Swifts,” she said. So when Rob gave me the call, I jumped at the opportunity. I grew up watching the Swifts play. It was always the team that I wanted to be a part of. So when the opportunity arose, I couldn’t say no.”
It was a dream come true for the young woman who originally hails from Bowral and a dream that she’s continued to live for the past three seasons. However, despite all the excitement she’s experienced on the netball court in that time, McCulloch is determined to keep herself grounded, working as a PE teacher in a Sydney high school.
“I definitely have to be really organised!” she said. “I think I’m pretty good with my time management and that’s come from being at uni while I was going through my junior years at netball, so I had to really be on top of everything."
"I’ve learnt how to keep that balance – when I leave work, it’s about netball and when I leave netball it’s about my family and my social life, so I try not to mix them all together. It’s been tough, but I think I’m all over it at the moment.”
While striking that balance has been a challenge, working and studying for a career outside netball is so important to McCulloch that she feels it has been well worth the hard work and it’s something she’d like to see continue to happen in the generations to come.
“I am a teacher, so I know how important education is,” she said. “I really do try and push that with kids that I’m teaching – if they want to be athletes I still try and push it – I think it’s really important to stay on top of that sort of stuff. I’m still studying, I like to do little things here and there just to stay in touch with what’s going on.”
The 2016 season has thrown up a few other challenges for McCulloch. While in 2015 she was preferred in the starting seven at Wing Defence, the introduction of New Zealand international Laura Langman into the line up has seen her shifted into more of an impact player role. McCulloch admits it hasn’t been the easiest of times for her.
“It’s been a bit tough really,” she said. “Obviously we all train because we want to play and that’s our main goal. After playing in the grand final last year and then obviously not getting much court time this year, it has been tough, but I just kept it in my head that every training session I’ll go out and train hard and put myself in the best position to be getting one of those starting patches."
"And then if it doesn’t happen, get over it, we’ve got a game to play and if I get on, I got out there and do what I can to help the team win.”
It’s a remarkably mature attitude – one that speaks volumes about her character and her value as a team member.
With her new role in the team has also come an adjustment to her preparations for going on court. McCulloch is not usually told in advance if the coach thinks she will be required to go on during the game, so she must remain vigilant and be mentally prepared to step into the fray at a moment’s notice.
“I don’t think I’m very emotional on the bench,” she said. “You don’t see me getting up like the rest of the girls and clapping and cheering, but I think that’s because I’m really watching either the Goal Attack, the Wing Attack or the Centre – I know if I’m going to go on, I’m going to be matching up against one of those three. So I like to make sure I know what they’re doing and what I can do to try to counteract that.”
A disappointing Australian Conference Final this week cost the Swifts a home semi final and the team will travel to Hamilton to take on the Waikato-Bay of Plenty Magic and try to win a spot in their second consecutive grand final.
According to McCulloch, a big focus for her team throughout this finals series is consistency and they will hope to demonstrate that during next Monday’s match.
“As a team, we’re really focussing on putting out a full 60 minutes worth of netball,” she said.
“We’ve been really inconsistent with that over the last few months in particular. I think we started really well this season with playing 60 minutes, but we’ve dropped off a bit and that’s probably because the other teams have been doing a bit of video on us and they know how to stop us now."
"So we’ve really been putting in some hard work on playing consistently.”
While it will be a tough road ahead for the Swifts to take out the final ever premiership of the ANZ Championship, McCulloch is full of positivity and believes her team has struck the right balance to take them one step further than their agonisingly close 2015 finish.
“I think we’ve got a really good mix of experience and youth this year, compared to last year,” she said. “We’ve got a number of players in their first season and they’ve really embraced it. They’ve brought this new found energy and excitement for the game, which I think we might have lost a little bit last year, so they’ve really helped us. They’ve done an awesome job – they train hard, they push us, they body up against us, they make us work hard. And I think they’ve done a really good job to just reignite the fire a little bit.”
ANZ Championships Semi- Final
Waikato Bay Of Plenty Magic v NSW Swifts
Sunday, 24 July 2016