IN 18 seasons in Australia's national netball league, Caitlin Thwaites has never forgotten where she came from.
And neither have those in her hometown, particularly those from the netball fraternity, forgotten that it was in Bendigo where it all started for the retiring Melbourne Vixens star.
While COVID-19 has denied Victorian fans one last chance to show their support in person, Thwaites can be assured of a groundswell of support from her hometown during Sunday's Suncorp Super Netball grand final between the Vixens and West Coast Fever.
Central Victorian region netball personalities have lined-up to express their well-wishes and appreciation for a Bendigo sporting legend ahead of her final national league appearance.
Netball Victoria northern region manager Pam Ferrari has known Thwaites since she was at primary school and could not be prouder with how the 33-year-old's career panned out.
"Caitlin is an absolutely fantastic person and is brilliant as an ambassador for our sport of netball; such a wonderful and caring person," she said.
"She does a lot that people don't know about n the way of being an ambassador for netball and caring about people."
Ferrari praised the resilience of Thwaites and her Vixens team-mates, who have thrived, despite spending more than three months away from home in Victoria since before the season began.
"That whole team has been absolutely amazing - as everyone says, it has been a year like we've never had before," she said.
"They have relocated themselves to Queensland and worked especially hard and I know they are very passionate about doing it for Victoria.
"They are constantly sending messages to people back in Victoria, especially those with family in Melbourne. They are very conscious of how hard people are doing it."
Ferrari admitted it would be sad watching Thwaites bow out of the game at the elite level, but hoped she would exit with a premiership.
"This has been one of her standout years, she has been absolutely great on the court, as a player and a leader," she said.
"I was even hoping she might play on as a Diamond, but we have to respect her wishes."
Dual Kangaroo Flat premiership star Chelsea Sartori said Thwaites was an inspiration to netballer in her home region.
"Caitlyn is definitely someone a lot of young players would look up to and inspire to be," she said.
"She's had one of her best seasons this year and it would be amazing to see her end her career with a premiership.
"She hasn't missed a beat during COVID and has played some of the best netball I've seen her play.
"It's great to see another local make it professionally.
"She's been one of the best goal shooters around and I'm sure everyone wishes her the best for Sunday's grand final. Go Vix."
South Bendigo coach Jannelle Hobbs paid homage to Thwaites for forging such a successful national and international career, starting from her first game with Melbourne Kestrels as a 16-year-old.
"Being a local Bendigo girl who has progressed through the netball pathway and made such a big impression on our sport, she is a real role model for country girls who are striving to play netball at the highest level," she said.
"Caitlin has worked so hard and has achieved so much in her netball career and deserves all the accolades that come her way.
"She certainly has worked hard and got the best out of herself and is one of the best team players in the world.
"Being able to reinvent her game this season as a goal attack and have a great year, she has continued to show our young regional girls that hard work and a great work ethic are so important in chasing your dreams.
"Best of luck to Caitlin for Sunday's grand final and a win would be a fitting end to a brilliant netball career."
Elmore coach Sue Borserio penned a passionate tribute to Thwaites and acknowledged the role she had played in the career of Vixens development squad player Ruby Barkmeyer, who played locally with both Kangaroo Flat and Elmore.
"On the court, you are the leader, the playmaker, the thinker, but more than that, you are a spectacular team player," she said.
"You lift everyone around you with your heart of gold. You accept the challenge and take it on without missing a beat.
"You are smart and you are courageous on the court.
"You play 60 minutes of netball to the end and never ever give up.
"The advice and netball smarts you have passed on to our own Ruby is amazing and selfless.
"This is your last dance; play your music and go out with a win."
The Vixens-Fever grand final clash will be televised live on 9 Bendigo from 1pm on Sunday.
Caitlin has worked so hard and has achieved so much in her netball career and deserves all the accolades that come her way.Jannelle Hobbs
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