Match of the Week: Georgeham netball mums play first league game
THEY looked like a team, thought like a team, played like a team and, abracadabra, they were a team.
Only nine months earlier they had been no more than a paragraph in our Community News pages.
"Netball? Are there any women, aged 13 to 99, who would be interested in netball," the paragraph read.
Parish councillor Sam Hood had a little money to spare and was checking out the potential for starting a team in Georgeham and Croyde.
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It was to develop into a local sports equivalent of the Military Wives Choir, a group of women with little or no experience in their new pursuit overcoming their anxieties to reach the big stage.
Admittedly, it may not have been the Royal Albert Hall, where the Military Wives performed on Remembrance Sunday, but as they arrived at the Park Community School for their North Devon Winter League debut it might as well have been, such was the fear.
"How are you?" this column inquired of team captain Louise Morris as we arrived to witness Georgeham Rocks' first night. "Very nervous," she replied. Emphasis on very.
Another player was overheard to say she was "frightened to death" with the first competitive match in the club's history now only half an hour away.
She need not have been. The Rocks may have lost 37-24 to Gater Girls but they did enough to show they had been transformed from the uncertain collection of mums who had attended the first coaching session in April into worthy league members.
Jessica Berry, the coach, said: "Thinking back to that very first session I was like, 'I don't know what we're going to do with this lot'.
"They were standing around chatting, balls were going everywhere, and it was all a bit uncontrolled. But they have come so far."
The squad of 12 comprises mainly mums of children at Georgeham Primary School who came together after the speculative appeal in the Journal was followed by Louise texting every name on her phone.
By May, coaching under Jessica was well under way.
Although nobody aged 99 responded, the key message that this was a chance for women, regardless of age, to return to a sport they may not have played since school struck a chord with Lisa Hawkins, 42.
The oldest member of the squad, Lisa had not played competitive sport for nearly 30 years but now she was to go out on court in the role of centre.
Furthermore, she was being talked up by her coach as the most improved player since training began.
"In her first session she had no confidence and her footwork was all over the place," said Jessica. "But now she is so controlled. Of all the players she has come on the most and it is so rewarding to see."
Lisa said: "I used to play in the school team when I was 14 or 15 but that was it. I thought my netball days were over.
"But when Louise texted I jumped at the opportunity. I could remember the basic rules and what to do but I have learnt so much since day one – tactics, being part of a team, being in the right position.
"I thought I was going to be too old but because we know each other from school I felt comfortable going along."
The admiration between coach and player is mutual. Not the least extraordinary aspect of the Rocks' journey is that the mums have been taking their orders from an 18-year-old.
"I came into this thinking, 'They are not going to want to listen to me, this feels really wrong'," said Jessica. "But they wanted someone who had played netball and knew what they were on about."
Although not yet out of her teens, Jessica had played for three years with Titans in the North Devon League.
"It must have been really difficult but she has been absolutely brilliant," said Lisa.
Jessica said: "The girls were looking for a coach and Jason Slade, who does local fitness, said he would help out to start with but he needed someone who knew more about netball.
"As I live in Georgeham, and had Thursday mornings off, I got involved.
"I could tell they didn't think they were very good so I was there to build them up more than anything.
"I suppose it is a bit like the Military Wives, like that first episode when they were all there saying, 'We don't want to sing, we don't want to demonstrate – you do it, you do it'.
"But you could tell there was potential so I just started with the basics – footwork, passing and catching skills."
Reflecting on how it all started, captain Louise said: "Jason set up a boot camp in the village. A few of us were going and, as a warm-up to a session, we played netball. We loved it so much we thought why not get a team together?
"Sam was one of the mums at the school and she heard I was interested, at which point she said she might be able to get us some funding.
"The support we have had from our village has been amazing, down to our sponsor the Rock Inn and Putsborough Sands to the school who let us use the court to train on."
In their opening match the shooting of goal attack Gemma Adams caught the eye, but then she has experience of playing for Venners in the second division.
However, that was before motherhood intervened. "I have a five-year-old and I played in the league before she was born," said Gemma.
"But then, being a mum, none of the teams were local and I could not go into Barnstaple a couple of times a week for training and matches. This is ideal because it is right after school drop-off."
The Rocks' first match may have ended in defeat but Louise, who last played competitive sport at the age of 14, 23 years ago, was not going to let that spoil the moment.
"I was so proud of the team," said the captain.
That said, the matches are likely to get harder. The Gater Girls are not much more experienced than the Rocks.
Formed out of a group of workmates at the Applegate Directory in Barnstaple, this is their first season in the Winter League following their debut term in the Summer League.
Having finished second from bottom in the Summer League and lost their first Winter League match, their win over Rocks gave them a boost.
For Rocks it is time for a change of coach but it is not a knee-jerk reaction to one defeat. Jessica has just started at Exeter University and is unavailable, so full coaching responsibilities are now with Lauren Howard, 22.
A qualified coach and experienced player – she has played for South West under-19s and Carol Anne – Lauren does not expect to be back playing until after Christmas following hip surgery in May.
If the club is optimistic about its potential to grow, the clue is in the name.
Why are they called the Rocks? "We thought it a good idea because, if we got other teams, we could elaborate on that and call them the Pebbles and so on," said Lisa.
At the speed of progress so far it may not be long before the Pebbles, like the Rocks, are thrown in at the deep end.