WHEN Caitlyn Nevins tells people she is from country Victoria - more specifically Echuca - she does so with great pride.
The Geelong-born, but Echuca-raised Suncorp Super Netball star is not only fiercely proud of her country roots, but grateful for the part they have played in her ascension to the elite-level.
It was with much honour and joy the 31-year-old midcourter travelled to Bendigo last weekend for a pre-season tournament involving her Queensland Firebirds and its rivals Melbourne Vixens, Collingwood Magpies and West Coast Fever.
It was at Bendigo Stadium and the adjoining Golden City Netball Association courts - an 'hour down the road' from Echuca, as Nevins puts it - where her sporting career in some regards took flight.
"I played both basketball and netball at the centre. I played with the Echuca and District Netball Association and we often had tournaments on the weekend, where the whole team would pile into a bus and travel to areas around country Victoria," she said.
"They are still some of my favourite netball memories.
"I also played basketball here at Bendigo with the Echuca Pirates.
"I was lucky to be part of a very talented junior sporting age group, we were actually very competitive through the netball and basketball. And they were my best friends.
"We used sport to socialise and we were very active and like-minded."
For Nevins and the Firebirds, their 'Bendigo Blockbuster' clashes against the Vixens and Fever were their second and third pre-season matches in Bendigo following a February showdown against the Magpies.
It's often said 'first impressions are lasting', and Nevins could not help but be in awe of the $23-million Bendigo Stadium redevelopment and the opportunities it will present for country Victoria's emerging young, sports talent.
"Walking through the existing courts, everything is familiar and it brings back so many fantastic memories," she said.
"(The new show court) is impressive ... it's wonderful. It would be great to have a facility like this to be able to bring sport to the regional centres because there are so many talented country kids.
"You look at the Australian Diamonds, nearly half of the squad are from country areas, so we breed them tough in the country."
While the Firebirds left Bendigo with a pair of losses, Nevins was no doubt grateful to get the opportunity to play in front of a group of her family and friends, as she was just to be back on court.
The nimble-footed wing attack had been sidelined with what she described as a 'frustrating, but relatively minor' ankle injury and missed the league's #TeamGirls Cup pre-season tournament in Brisbane.
Her return to the midcourt and polished ball movement were two of the major positives for the Firebirds, who continue their slow build to a season opening contest against the Vixens in Melbourne on April 27.
Following a fourth place finish last season, Nevins believed the Firebirds had every reason to believe they could push for higher honours in a 2019 season shaping as one of the most even, from top to bottom, in many years.
"It was tough watching Sunshine Coast Lightning win the grand final, after we lost to them by one goal in the (minor) semi-final, and us knowing we had a great team and just weren't able to finish it off on the day," she said.
"That's what happens with sport sometimes, if you are not on your A-grade game another team can upset you.
"There's been so much (player) movement in the off-season and that has only strengthened our competition.
"There is so much international talent playing now too .... I don't think you will see too many margins that blowout, which is great for fans and for us players means you have to be performing at your best and backing up and being consistent to be a contender.
"As far as (the Firebirds') expectations, we want to win. We believe we are capable of doing it.
"The pre-season tournament (in Queensland), we were disappointed with our performance and we know we have a bit of room for improvement before the start of the season, but we are confident of winning it."
You look at the Australian Diamonds, nearly half of the squad are from country areas, so we breed them tough in the country.- Caitlyn Nevins
Nevins is no stranger to championship success, having been a part of grand final winning line-ups in the former ANZ Championship with the Vixens in 2014 and Firebirds in 2015-16.
She would dearly love to add a fourth championship, as well as having some unfinished business on another netball front.
With the 2019 Netball World Cup in England looming in July, the Firebirds vice-captain, who made her Diamonds debut during the 2017 Quad Series in England, revealed she had not given up hope of one day representing her nation again.
"I hope I am still on the radar," she said.
"Being injured recently I wasn't looked at in terms of being a training partner for the Diamonds, but I'd like to to think I'm still in contention for the World Cup.
"But at the end of the day I need to be performing with the Firebirds and keep putting my hand up.
"It's such a hard team to crack, so all you can do is let your performances do the talking."
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