THERE were no hugs or high fives, but South Bendigo's first foray back into netball training on Thursday had all the hallmarks of a family reunion.
Festive, good-humoured and rousing - not the type besieged by bickering, as some family gatherings can be.
Players - first the Bloods' 17-and-unders, followed by their A-grade and A-reserve club-mates - could not disguise their smiles as they took to the court at Harry Trott Oval for the first time since mid-March, when training ground to a halt due to the COVID-19 pandemic
It had been a long-time coming.
They came well-versed on the essential hygiene protocols and return to play guidelines, as mandated by Netball Victoria and Netball Australia in the days before.
In case they'd forgotten, South's netball operations manager Gill Davey was there to talk them through their requirements and obligations.
For a good 10-minutes, player combinations and tactics gave way to reminders to wipe the surface of the netball using a single anti-bacterial wipe, to prepare and dress at home, to wash and sanitise hands before and after training, and to maintain social distancing at all times - hence no unnecessary body contact, handshakes or high fives.
All small sacrifices, according to Bloods skipper Chloe Adams, for the players to get back to doing what they love most.
"If we have to do that to be here, we'd do it 10 times over," she said.
"Everyone is doing it, it's not just us who has to do it.
"(There's) no complaints here, it's just to good to be out here and with our spirits high."
After not seeing virtually all of her team-mates, other than her house-mate Adams since mid-March, vice-captain Keiarah Brooks said the first temptation was to embrace them.
While hugs will have to wait a while longer, the midcourter, who is new to the club this season from the Ballarat league, could barely contain her excitement at being able to step back out onto the court.
"It's nice just being around the girls and not seeing each other on Zoom, that's probably been the biggest thing with everyone," Brooks said
"Just seeing how excited everyone was unbelievable ... everyone was up and about.
"Being around each other for the first time in so long is good enough right now, but hopefully a hug will come soon - we do like to get around each other.
"It's only my first year here, but I feel we are already gelling so well. Just being around these girls feels like we are super-close."
Brooks said while she fully understood the need to suspend grassroots netball and football training due to coronavirus developments across the world, the March 17 announcement had come as a shock and huge disappointment.
"We had been having such a strong pre-season - the bonds that we had made, even in that short time, were already so strong," she said.
"We were just getting to the point of putting it on to the court, going through gameplays and things like that.
"It's been very disappointing we haven't been able to show all the effort we put in off the court, on the court."
Like most of her team-mates, Brooks has found her own thoughts fluctuating on whether a BFNL season will go ahead.
"I feel if there won't be a season, there will definitely be something, whether that's a tournament, or whether clubs organise something over summer," she said.
"Footballers and netballers, we are all missing that part of our life."
Club captain Adams admitted she too had been 'umming and ahhing' on the potential for a 2020 competition.
"I go week-to-week changing, and obviously if we do get a season, it will be altered. How that looks I have no idea," she said.
"I have approached it with a positive mindset - I know the thought of not having a season won't sit well with many people, but it's wait and see. I don't think anyone knows at this stage.
"It's so hard to judge, we just need to keep doing what we're doing and hope for the best."
For South Bendigo - in particular the A-grade team - the disappointment of no season to date has been amplified by the realisation expectations have never been higher on the netball court.
Hopes remain high after the A-grade team broke an 18-year finals drought last season and embarked on a fruitful recruiting drive that netted not only former Ballarat Sovereigns VNL player Brooks, but also Hollie Horbury and the return of former A-grade captain Sarah Nash.
"We were well and truly raring to go and that was the feeling around the club," Adams said.
"When the season was put on hold, we were understanding of what was going on in the world, but we were more gutted than normal because we could feel something brewing.
"I think that is only going to make us hungrier when we do come back, if that's this year or next year."
Adams believed the playing group as a whole had coped as well as could be expected during the lockdown.
"In fact, in a strange way, I think it's made us closer almost. You have to talk all the time because you don't see each other on that Tuesday and Thursday night," she said.
"So, it's bonded us more. What's that saying, 'distance makes the heart grow fonder'? I think that applies to us."
COVID-19 has brought adjustments elsewhere in life for the two Bloods leaders, who have only recently become housemates.
Adams, a primary school teacher, has been busy preparing for the transition back to face-to-face learning and considers herself lucky to have emerged unscathed from the coronavirus lockdown with her job intact.
"We had the option of whether we wanted to go into work or work from home, so I have still been going in as there are still kids coming in whose parents are essential workers," she said.
"We still have anywhere from 20 to 40 kids during the day, but I haven't had my normal classroom.
"They are starting back Tuesday ... all my kids. I cannot wait to see them, I miss them as much as my team-mates."
Brooks, an occupational therapy student at La Trobe University, has adapted well to online learning, but for a time did move back to her family's home at Donald.
"That was a big change," she said.
"Staying motivated is the biggest thing, you have to be very self-driven compared with being on campus and in class.
"But everyone is in the same boat. All the support from everyone at the uni and in the community has been pretty good."
Brooks spared plenty of thoughts for Bloods coach Jannelle Hobbs, who had been 'an enormous source of support' during the teams' time away from each other.
"I think if everyone graded just how much they have missed netball, she would have missed it the most," she said.
"Jannelle lives and breathes netball. I think it's challenged her more than most people realise.
"But she has been amazing. She always has things for us to do and she is always encouraging us to ask how everyone else is.
"The whole support from all coaches and admin has been amazing."
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