By sports editor Russell Bennett
The planets are finally aligning for Gembrook Cockatoo’s netballers.
Their Orchard Road home courts were decommissioned two years ago, but the sad reality is they were unfit for play long before that.
The rich, red soil that Gembrook is so well known for would form a kind of mudslide on wet days, pouring on to the courts, while weeds would regularly pop up through the cracks in the playing surface.
And then there’s the “netball clubrooms” at the ground – currently nothing more than a storage shed on the side of the courts.
The past few years haven’t exactly been easy on the Brookers, particularly when they’ve been separated from the rest of their Gembrook Cockatoo family on game days when they’ve been forced to play at Cockatoo, while the footballers have been able to remain at their spiritual home up on the hill in Gembrook.
But now there’s a bright, shining light for the club – and it’s not at the end of some seemingly never-ending tunnel.
It’s here. Now.
Not only are both the football and netball arms of this incredibly tightknit club about to embark on exciting new facility upgrades, the netballers have a new coach who can’t wait to lead them through their exciting new chapter.
If all goes according to plan, the Brookers will have their new facilities ready for the start of the 2021 AFL Outer East season – and for the netballers that includes a new netball pavilion and court upgrades.
It won’t be long before they have stands and a playing surface befitting that magical view overlooking those rolling green hills.
And together with newly-appointed senior coach Shanae Ingram, they can’t wait.
“With the upgrades – I guess the complete redoing – of the courts, and the addition of a pavilion, I think we’re finally going to be able to showcase what we can do, and how we want things to be moving forward at Gembrook,” outgoing coach Mickey U’ren told the Gazette at a windswept Brookers HQ in recent days.
That word, ‘outgoing’, certainly suits her personality – but it doesn’t quite describe her situation at the Brookers.
She’s not going anywhere. Instead, along with another Brookers favourite in Penne Asling, she’s bursting with excitement for having Ingram on board.
Mickey and Shanae have been close friends for at least a decade – in fact Shanae and her partner Ben even signed Mickey and her husband’s marriage certificate.
And the truth is that they’ve been talking about uniting in a netball sense at Gembrook for years.
And now the timing is just right.
The Brookers are set to embark on a new campaign in AFL Outer East Division 1 next season – up from Division 2, where extensive game day travel was a regular feature.
And that’s another part of this plan that’s all fitting into place – being able to play against clubs much closer to home, and therefore standing a much better chance of attracting quality playing talent from the nearby growth corridor.
“It’s just so exciting at the moment because we are going into a division that’s more central to us, we’re getting our brand new courts, starting on our pavilion, and we’re bringing in a new head coach,” U’ren explained.
“It’s building from the foundation blocks that Penne and I have been putting in place for the past four years.
“I can’t wait until the building is up and the courts are done. I’ve already said to Penne that I want to sit in the middle of the new courts and have a picnic when they’re all done – to pop a bottle of champagne celebrate the work we’ve done.”
After navigating the arduous political minefield that is trying to secure approval and funding for facility upgrades, the Brookers are now looking forward to one hell of an exciting future. The football club has signed a number of new players, while Ingram has moved from her home club Kooweerup in West Gippsland up to Gembrook to take the Brookers’ netballers forward.
“Our vision – the club’s, and Penne’s and mine – is always to keep Gembrook a local football and netball club,” U’ren said.
“We want to be as professional as possible and we want to take it to those next levels, but at our core we’re still one, united local club. With our new facilities, yes, we’ll be stepping up in the world, but we still want to stay true to our roots.
“It really does feel like the hard work we’ve been putting in is really starting to come together now, and I think that last piece we needed was a head coach who can take our netball club to the heights we believe it’s capable of.”
U’ren said Ingram’s appointment was an easy one, for a couple of key reasons.
“It wasn’t just because I know her so well as a person, it was because I know she and her family would fit into our football netball club seamlessly,” she said.
“I really believe she’ll get the most out of herself, and the most out of us here.
“I know how passionate she is about her netball. I’ve been fortunate enough to be mentored by Shanae for my whole coaching career so far. She’s always the first person I turn to.
“The girls need that fresh voice, and someone who’s really passionate to do the role as well. Someone like Shanae could really light a fire under us again and push us to the next level.”
From playing, to coaching, to serving at committee level – Ingram has done it all in a netballing sense.
And now she can’t wait for her new challenge.
“It’s a big change – a new club, new faces, and a new league – but I’ve been up here a few times and had a look and I’m really excited about what’s already here and what we can grow,” Ingram said.
“We’ve been in talks for a little while about making this move happen and the reason I made the choice to come here is that it is very much like where I’ve come from at Kooweerup where it is a family club.
“People are here because they want to be, and they want to represent the club and the town with pride.
“In terms of the netball here, they’ve been functioning for a long time but they’re also ready to go to that next level. Mickey and Penne have put in the groundwork – now we just need to go to the next step, and hopefully I can help the club do that over the next few years – to make it a destination club where players want to come to.
“We really want to bring in a couple of top-end players who aren’t just good quality netballers, but are also good quality club people. They’ve got a lot of good junior talent already up here – in that 18 to 19-year-old category – who could really grow as players if we could get the right people in alongside them.
“The plan is to get a couple of players in to help them further their netball careers, and that will filter down, but the junior set-up here is pretty fresh to the club itself, so we really need to make sure they feel a part of it as well so we’ve got a strong future for the years to come.”
The Brookers will hold netball tryouts on November 21, 23, and 28 from 6pm, 11am, and 6pm respectively at their temporary netballing home at Mountain Road in Cockatoo.
Players wishing to register their interest should head to https://form.jotform.co/92977418533873, or visit the club’s Facebook page. For more information call Shanae on 0432 635 788, or Mickey on 0423 016 955.