BEFORE Monday, it had been more than seven months since Carley Ernst last graced Bendigo Stadium's court one.
It went without saying by the 26-year-old, she was glad to be back.
Ernst, the Bendigo Spirit's reigning MVP award winner, is one of only three players from last year's main roster returning for the 2020-21 WNBL season.
It will be a WNBL season that shapes like no other before it, with a six-week season to be played in hubs in Cairns, Mackay and Townsville.
With the Spirit set to the field a significantly younger and less experienced line-up following the departure of club legends Gabe Richards and Kelly Wilson and six-year WNBL player Abbey Wehrung - and with no imports - the experience of players like Ernst, Tessa Lavey and new recruit Amelia Todhunter, who are preparing for their 11th, 12th and 13th seasons respectively, will never be more invaluable with the team away from home for the duration of the season.
It's a situation not lost on Ernst herself, who is embracing her status as a leader.
"I guess I'm a bit of a veteran now, but still feel young at heart," she said.
"But definitely I am going to bring my experience and help the girls out along the way ... some of the younger ones."
While the team only trained together for the first time on Monday and for the second time on Tuesday morning, Ernst believed plenty of off-season work, in particular, the 45 'Spirit at Home' Zoom training sessions players had participated in, had ensured they were well prepared for the succinct 14 game season.
"Looking at (Monday's) training session, no one looked like they were out of shape, and no one looked like they were dying, which is good," she said with a laugh.
"I think everyone's put in the work.
"So, coming into such a short pre-season, even though it's short, everyone's put in the work off the court and everyone's eager.
"(The condensed season) is going to be tough, but I think recovery will be one of the major, massive factors for us."
"I think it's a player's dream to play more games than training."
There will be plenty more motivation for Ernst, for whom last season's 5-16 record and seventh-place finish did not sit well.
"Last season wasn't the best one, but I think we can still take things out of that season and learn from it," she said.
"We'll put new things in this season with a new bunch of girls, play hard and try our best."
It was a better 2019-20 season on a personal note, with Ernst averaging a 12 points per game, a team-high 6.7 rebounds, 2.1 assists and finishing with 12 steals and 10 blocked shots, on her way to the club MVP award.
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