Massive boost for girls’ game

ERIC GEORGE, THE AUSTRALIAN

Leanne Eades is trying to be the role model she never had as a keen netballer growing up in regional Western Australia in the 1970s.

Eades remembers being one of only a handful of Aboriginal girls in her team. But now she’s one of a small army of indigenous women rolling out the state’s Aboriginal Grassroots Netball program.

Netball WA began the initiative 15 years ago in Bunbury, as part of a state government initiative seeking to boost regional sport participation.

The program has since spread to almost a dozen sites, mostly clustered in the state’s southwest. Each location is run slightly differently but all provide young indigenous girls with a 12-week training program and an entree to a sport they might have otherwise ignored.

“We wanted to bring more girls and women into our program where they felt comfortable, it was a safe environment, they wanted to participate and wanted to come back,” says Netball WA’s general manager of community netball, Liz Booth.

Netball WA has found that the girls who sign up to a Grassroots netball program then want to keep playing and sign up with a local club.

Eades took the reigns of a program in Katanning, two hours north of Albury, in 2012.

She’s seen numbers swell from five girls to 35 in the past six years.

Eades says that she sees the girls who play netball become happier, more confident, and more open. The secret, apparently, is giving them “a sense of belonging”.

Miriam Bolton, now 17, joined the Grassroots program when she was 10.

She was attracted to it because she’d seen that change in her friends who’d given it a go. “Just seeing how Aunty Lea changed the other girls made me think that they could get me somewhere,” Bolton says. “When you train you get to meet new people. You become family basically.”

That sense of community runs deeply through netball clubs in regional Australia, none more so than Katanning.

This year, for the first time, the Katanning Grassroots program girls had their own uniforms, donated by a local security business. It was the beginning and end of Eades’ wish list.

The group also now has its own shelf in the trophy cabinet at the town’s recreation centre, and Eades regularly updates the council on how the local indigenous girls are travelling.

“I’m proud of what our Katanning group is doing,” she says.

“I do not have a daughter playing, so it’s a privilege to be called Aunty throughout the community.”

Netball is a sport crying out for indigenous talent. Only two Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander women have represented Australia in the 70-year history of the Diamonds, and there is only a single indigenous athlete currently playing Super Netball.

It’s a complex tangle of issues that netball administrators around Australia are working to address. But creating an inclusive and attractive environment for girls in regional communities is a vital step that the Grassroots clinics are providing.

Booth says there has been a “massive boost” in indigenous talent coming through WA’s performance pathways, and that many of those girls got their start in a Grassroots clinic.

Kiara Taylor is living that story. The 17-year old has worked her way up through the grades at Katanning’s netball club and this year was selected as part of the Great Southern regional team.

She wouldn’t be playing netball if it wasn’t for her nan, Eades, and has her sights firmly set on playing for the West Coast Fever.

But the highlight for Taylor is still taking the court with her lifelong coach.

At 52, Eades is still running out at goalkeeper for Katanning’s division one team each week.

“She still has it,” Bolton says with a laugh. “The way she plays really inspires me to be a better player.”

“When you train you get to meet new people. You become family basically.”

NewsAnna Poulos