As we pen the finals into our diaries, it is the perfect time to reflect on the most abnormal Suncorp Super Netball (SSN) season to date. It has been a long road and finals have come around quickly.
Rising star and now Australian Diamond Development Squad member, Sophie Dwyer reflects with Netball Scoop about her first season contracted with GIANTS Netball. Almost exactly one year on from her debut, Sophie has turned heads with her accuracy, calmness, and dynamism.
With a narrow loss to the Sunshine Coast Lightning on Tuesday (Round 13) in extra time, the GIANTS have shown what they are capable of, being five goals down with only four minutes to go and coming back to force the extra time. “I think it was disappointing we couldn’t come away with the four points, but I think it’s good prep for finals and exciting that we were able to force extra time.”
With the condensed season, Sophie reiterates how doing all the right things, in terms of nutrition, sleep, eating well and ice baths, is essential for adequate recovery. “I think the condensed season really does highlight how important recovery is. We usually have a week in between matches and only having half a week highlights the importance of that and how you definitely have to do all the right things and all those one percenters”.
“For me, a massive thing is sleep. I really do need my eight or nine hours plus. That is important for me especially after training and before getting into a game. Also, jumping in the ice bath is important. Many niggles can arise, especially when you’re playing a condensed season, and playing for 60-minute matches, so getting in that ice bath quite regularly does prepare your body for the next match”.
While focus has been on the hardships of 2021, the opportunities that Covid has afforded young players to develop their craft should be acknowledged. Sophie Dwyer was a GIANTS Netball training partner in 2020 and was part of the extended squad that travelled the Queensland hub. She was then signed with the GIANTS Netball for the 2021 season. “I think the first thing is that Covid gave me the opportunity to play SSN. Obviously, last year, I was a training partner and with the extended squad I was able to go up into the hub.
“So, a silver lining of Covid is that I was able to debut last year, and I was able to put myself on the map. It gave me an opportunity for a contract this year. I can’t really say that this situation has disadvantaged me – it’s probably more so the opposite. Obviously, this is a very tough time and there’s been so many disadvantages in other areas of life, but for my netball career, it’s only helped it grow”.
With the game time and opportunity of the extended squad that Sophie has experienced first hand, Sophie advocates for extending squad numbers where possible. “The first step would be maybe extending the squad sizes to 12. Obviously, it is important that you’re getting game time, so having five people on the bench, maybe you’re not going to be getting as much game time than if there’s just the 10, but you can be playing in your premier league or your state leagues.” This point was also mentioned by coach Julie Fitzgerald post-match on Saturday, where two players were out with injury, and with Covid restrictions, the squad only had eight players for the final game of the regular season.
Stepping into the goal attack position, which was, until an injury in round one filled by the Australian Diamond goal attack, was a challenge for Sophie. But anyone who has watched Sophie command space and sink long bombs in crunch moments knows that she has stepped up to the task time after time. “After Kippa went down, everyone was in shock and knew they had a job to do to finish off that game. After her injury was confirmed, at first, I was very nervous going into that round two game – I knew this was me, this was my spot for the rest of the season.
“I wanted to take the opportunity with both hands. I probably got myself a bit overwhelmed but after the win in round two and we had another win on the board, I felt much more confident. Every game since then I felt like I’ve been able to prove that I can be a starting player and that’s what drives me every week”.
When preparation meets opportunity
Sophie is also determined to keep her starting seven position. “Determination is a massive value for me. Going into this season I was happy that I wasn’t going to be a bench player, I was going to be more of an impact player, but now that I’ve been given my opportunity, I am really determined to now keep it”.
When asked for her take on her most memorable quote, ‘Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’, the GIANTS goal attack acknowledges that she strongly believes in being committed to putting in the extra effort. It is clear as to why Sophie can be calm and collected on court, as she is confident that her preparation over the years is enough.
“I wanted to be a shooter that could shoot from anywhere, under whatever pressure or time, and shooting 30 minutes before and after training from a young age has benefited me now in the long term. I have prepared from such a young age. You know you have the skills and techniques; you just have put it out there and perform on the day and having that preparation only makes that easier. That’s why I like that quote”.
Highlights of 2021 season
With this, Sophie’s highlights of the season involve the growth of her confidence and running out the full 60-minute game at the elite level. “Building my confidence coming into this year I didn’t think I would be playing out full 60-minute games so each time I get on court I do feel more confident. I think it can be daunting, playing up against some defenders that are the best in the world. Being able to prove to myself and others that I can match it with the best and put up some consistent full 60 minutes games is really exciting and a massive highlight for me”.
For the club, Sophie reflects that the win in the NSW Derby against the Swifts in Round 11 was important this season. “A massive highlight would have to be the win in the derby against the Swifts in the eleventh round. I think it’s been the first time since 2018 that GIANTS have defeated the Swifts. It was a turning point in our season to know that we are here to play finals and we want to be in finals.
“We haven’t been in finals since 2018 either so that was a big game for us, and we knew that if we wanted to be there at the end, we must beat teams like the Swifts. So, putting a full 60-minute performance together against one of the best teams in the league would have definitely been a highlight”.
Sitting first on the ladder to date, the GIANTS have won nine of their matches this season and lost five, which mirrors the current results of six-time premiership winners, the New South Wales Swifts. To make best use of these losses, match review, and reflection on errors is the course of action. “We do like to look at the positives in each game as well as our losses, a lot of them were only pretty close games. To be with these top teams and only lose by a couple of goals, we know that we can match it with the best in the league, but we need to work out what areas we need to improve on to take the next step. I think that’s what’s exciting coming into finals, that we do have the confidence that we can beat anyone in the league.”
“We do a lot of just video, but we also have done a couple of analysis sessions out on court where we walk through some plays and some things that could potentially work against the opposition”.
Although players like Sophie and captain, Jo Harten are comfortable taking the long shots, Sophie highlights how the GIANTS’ focus on winning the first 10 minutes of each quarter. “As much as we are using the super shots and want to take that as an advantage, we do have a massive focus on winning the first 10 minutes of each quarter, so I think as much as we have built on that, I am proud to have shown that I can put up long shots in high pressure situations”. This strategy was evident in the Saturday’s win by two goals against the West Coast Fever (Round 14), where the GIANTS took home the minor premiership and assume first position on the ladder.
And mindset is imperative, especially coming to the apex of a turbulent season, where players are away from home and have been forced to adapt to constant changes in their program. To get into a positive headspace before a game, Sophie prefers structure to her approach with statistics and practicing her shooting technique. “I am very into my stats, as well so I do like to look at that and I guess that calms me before a game. I think for me I just like getting to the post and putting up a few shots just not thinking about anything except my technique and that settles me before a game”.
Often referred to as the ‘ice queen’, a name that sums up her cool presence on court, Sophie endeavours to perform with equanimity and focus throughout her career. “I’ve always wanted to be that calm player on court. I do think it’s one of my biggest strengths, especially being my first year of SSN, the defenders haven’t really seen me before.
“So, if I can be that calm presence and not reactive to what they’re putting out, I think that’s beneficial for my game. Also, having Jo there, she’s always looking to develop my game wherever she can, as she is talking to me for the full 60 minutes and giving me a lot of confidence out there”.
Shooting at 75% for the season and averaging approximately 26 goals a game, Sophie cultivates belief in herself through her team and her coach. “Being calm is something that helps me when I’m out on court. I don’t get too worked up about things and I think that only benefits me when I am out on court. I also have Jo and Julie backing me and saying go out there and play; you have the skills to go out there and perform. This does give me a lot of confidence when you have an English Rose and a coach as amazing as Julie Fitzgerald telling me that. So, the support definitely goes a long way in helping my confidence”.
GIANTS Netball family
Fostering a tight family community is a feature of the GIANTS Netball club, which functions in partnership with Greater Western Sydney GIANTS AFL and AFLW teams. “The GIANTS are the GIANTS because it’s really about the family vibe that we have. Having all these teams together, we really do support each other, and I think that’s what kind of makes our club different form others”.
As teams moved between states to ensure the remainder of the season could be played out, Kiera Austin accompanied the GIANTS Netball team. Sophie commented on how inspirational Kiera has been to teammates and fans alike who have been following her recovery. “Watching her rehab everyday she’s just a superhuman, and I think for me personally, having her here is so beneficial on the sideline, just giving me constant feedback and direction. Having an Aussie Diamond as kind of your personal mentor is something that is so beneficial”.
A tight family community is comprised of strong friendships that provide stability and a source of comfort. Bonded through commonality, Sophie fondly discusses some of her closest connections: “I think I spend the most time with Tilly and Matisse, the two young ones. I think we have just grown up through the networks of NSW pathway together. I think it’s just natural that we are drawn together. When we do go for mealtimes, we are always organising to meet at the lifts. They are some of my closest friends that I have made in netball, and I think that being in a team for five plus years together, we have formed a really close friendship”.
A collective understanding around respect for players’ alone time helps maintain some normalcy in the Queensland hub. “We don’t have a formal way of cultivating mental health within the team. But we obviously are all living together and it’s a lot of netball that we’re living and obviously if we were living at home, we wouldn’t be living netball 24/7. It is important for us, and we do value our alone time. As much as we do a lot of team activities together, away from the court we also value if people need time to focus on themselves”.
On your toes
Moving into finals, Sophie notes that she will be focusing on sustaining her impact on the game through creative movement. “I want to be an attacker that is unpredictable, and you don’t want defenders to be able to watch video and do review on you and then know how to shut you down. Having a bag full of tricks is the best way to put it, being out there and whatever the defenders throw at you, you have something different to throw at them, so they are always on their toes, trying to predict what you’re going to do”.
While Kiera was away on Diamonds’ duties, Sophie had time during the pre-season to build connections with midcourters, Maddie Hay and Amy Parmenter. “In the long run, that time to play with them while Kiera was away has benefited me now because I had played against every team but Fever coming into the season, so I had an idea of what to expect”.
Sophie also comments on the strengths of the team moving into the major semi-final. “A massive strength that we do have at the GIANTS is the moving circle. We aren’t just a tall shooter with a kind of sweeping goal attack, we can have a lot of movement in there. I think that is a massive strength of ours that we can kind of change it up and have the goal shooter out and the goal attack holding as well. I think we will use that in whatever opposition we come up against.”
In preparation for West Coast Fever defender, Sunday Aryang (Round 14), Sophie restates the importance of offering something new. “Sunday and I are quite similar in ages, so we’ve played against each other coming up through the underage national pathway, so we do know each other quite well, but I think we have both developed so much this year, so we don’t know what each other are going to be able to put out there. So, definitely creativity and variety will be a massive focus going into the Fever game”.
As the end of season 2021 is not so far away, Netball Scoop asked Sophie about what will occupy her spare time. “I am part of the Australian Under/21 squad, and the World Youth Cup has been cancelled and we can no longer make that team, but they are still hoping for something to happen. Hopefully, after the SSN season, we will hear about whether there’s going to be a final selection or whether we’re going to be having some sort of competition. If that doesn’t happen, I think I would just be getting back to Sydney and spending some time with family and friends because we have been away for such a long time.”
Additionally, Sophie also plans on turning her attention to her studies. “I am studying Sport and Exercise Science at University of Technology Sydney, and we are in our second semester that just started this week. It’s all online for the first five weeks anyway so I should be back in time if anything on campus does happen. It is nice to have something else to do, as there is a lot of downtime when I am not at training”.
This rising star is one example of how young talent has flourished throughout this unpredictable SSN season. The netball community are eager to see how Sophie refines her skills as she builds with GIANTS Netball and the Diamonds in 2022. “Kiera is going to be back in the team next year and I think it’ll be really exciting if we have that flexibility of having all three shooters that are able to take the court and produce a high level of performance at any time”.
Jo Harten sums up Sophie nicely after the important win on Saturday. “You have the weight of the world on your shoulders, but you say no, I’m not pressured. Do you ever blink more than once?”
On Sunday (8/8/2021), it was announced that Sophie is a member of the Australian Diamonds Development Squad for 2021/22.