CHLOE Watson finds it slightly surreal that little girls with big netball dreams are lining up to get her autograph and trying to emulate her sporting feats when they step out to play.
But after signing a one-year deal to join powerhouse ANZ Championship club the Melbourne Vixens for the 2015 season, she’ll have to get used to her “star” status in a hurry.
“I remember the first time I was asked for a signature when I was an extra at a Vixens clinic and I thought, surely you don’t want my autograph, I’m not famous, I’m no one,” the 20-year-old says. “Now I just sign, but it still feels strange.”
The Bendigo defender has enjoyed a meteoric rise through netball’s ranks, but the pace of her progression in the past 12 months has surprised even herself.
Aside from her Vixens honour, Watson’s recent achievements have included selection in Australia’s 21-under squad, touring New Zealand with a sports academy team, winning the Victorian Netball League championship division’s most valuable player trophy, being voted co-captain of the Victorian Flames in the Australian Netball League, and earning a place in the Australian Institute of Sport’s Netball Centre of Excellence program in Canberra.
All this while studying law at the Australian Catholic University!
I remember the first time I was asked for a signature... I thought, surely you don't want my autograph, I'm not famous, I'm no one.
Not bad for a country kid who, until a few years ago, didn’t think she was good enough to step up to the elite netball level.
Even if she didn’t see it coming, talent scouts recognised Watson’s potential early and selected her in a Victorian primary team when she was playing for Holy Rosary.
She made a Catholic squad during her early teens but was overlooked for other school and Netball Victoria underage state teams, despite often making it to the final selection trial.
“I always loved playing netball but I never thought I had it in me to make it, so it wasn’t too disappointing if I missed out,” she says, explaining it wasn’t until her second year in the NV northern zone high-performance academy that she re-evaluated her goals.
“I was really enjoying going to academy days and being with my friends. But my coaches helped me see it was a pathway and that was how you got into state teams, so I started taking it more seriously, rather than it being more of a social thing.
“When I worked out that was what I wanted, I put my head down and trained hard and got there. It was still fun along the way though - I couldn’t keep playing if I didn’t love the game.”
Watson grew up watching mum Denise - her first netball idol - take the court for Colbinabbin in the Heathcote league and playing juniors herself in Bendigo.
By the time she was 14 and in year eight at Catholic College, she had joined BFNL club Sandhurst (where her dad Peter is now president) and was holding her own in 17-unders.
In 2010, she began travelling to Melbourne to play VNL with Hume City Falcons and her big break came that year when she made the Victorian 17-under squad and her team went on to win the national championships.
Watson didn’t get much court time that tournament, but she hasn’t missed state selection since and has been in Australia’s 19-under and 21-under squads.
In July, she got her first taste of international netball, playing in New Zealand’s 23-under championships with a national team of sports institute and academy scholarship holders.
Lining up against strong teams featuring several ANZ Championship players, the Aussies won three of their six games in what Watson described as an “awesome competition”.
Several new rules were trialled at the tournament, including having a two-point area inside the ring to reward long-shot accuracy and curb the dominance of tall holding shooters who stand under the post and goal from close range.
“I like the idea behind it, but I am a traditionalist and it just changes the game too much.
“It was crazy - as a defender, you had to try and force the goalers out of the ring or towards the post instead of keeping them out long. If your attacker got the ball under the ring, it was considered great defence because they could only score one point.
“We had to do a review on it afterwards for Netball New Zealand, and I didn’t like it at all.”
Watson could be in line for more overseas trips, with a 12-member Australian 21-under team soon to be named to visit Invercargill, NZ, later in the month.
A tour of South Africa is also scheduled for AIS Netball Centre of Excellence athletes in October. Watson moved to Canberra at the end of the ANL season in August for the eight-week residential program that aims to fast-track the development of future Diamonds.
Her Victorian Flames team did not make the ANL finals in 2014, but her second year in the league provided opportunity for huge personal growth as co-captain.
“You used to have to apply to be captain, but this time we all sat down in a room in front of each other and said who we wanted to vote for,” Watson says.
“I was so honoured that all of the girls said they wanted me to do it - I was blown away.
“I like the responsibility of being captain and being able to lead by example. I’m not a massive one for pep talks, I’m fine to do it but I’d rather get out there on court.
“Without the added responsibility, it’s easy to focus on your own game and get frustrated if things are not going well for you, but as captain I can’t afford to do that. I have to keep encouraging everyone around me.”
Her leadership skills were also tested at the national 21-under championships this year, when Watson captained Victoria to second after losing two stars.
“Liz Watson was taken out of the team two weeks beforehand and Alice Teague-Neeld was replaced mid-way through, both to fulfil Melbourne Vixens duties.
“It would have been easy for us to give up and think we couldn’t make finals. As captain, I couldn’t express any disappointment as we still had a lot of tough games to go.
“But how the team came together and never accepted we were going to be anywhere but the grand final was amazing. I have never been more satisfied with a silver medal.”
Traditionally a circle defender, Watson has been adjusting to the challenge of switching from GD into wing defence, instead of going back to goal keeper.
Despite standing 183cm, she is considered too short to play under the post and has worked hard to improve her consistency and versatility in her new role.
Her surprise offer of a rookie spot on the reigning ANZ champions’ roster is a fitting reward for her dedication.
She says she has had amazing backing from her family throughout her netball career, as well as team-mates and club staff.
“Coming from Bendigo was hard because we had that added element of travel to make it to the next level. And once I started playing in Melbourne, I had to get serious because mum and dad were driving me two hours each way to do it.
“Moving away from home was the biggest challenge - I didn’t think it could get much harder than travelling to Melbourne four or five times a week while doing VCE, but it did because then I had to come home and cook and wash and do everything for myself.
“I played junior netball with Liz Watson and her family has been amazing to me. My City West Falcons coach Marg Lind has also been a big support - I’d often go to her house to use the internet and study, and she’d cook me tea.
“Some of the players are great as well, understanding where you are coming from and the challenges you face, especially the ones who have moved out of home.”
Bendigo remains close to Watson’s heart and she loves returning home to catch up with family and friends, and to lend a hand at netball coaching clinics.
If all goes to plan, she may well give those little faces who look up to her now even more reason to cheer in the future.
“I do want to play for the Diamonds one day,” she says. “It may be a long way off, but I think every netballer at high level dreams of that.”