BENDIGO'S Caitlin Thwaites says the Melbourne Vixens 'haven't come this far to come this far'.
The star Vixens goaler is clearly referencing her side's Suncorp Super Netball grand final showdown against the West Coast Fever in Brisbane on Sunday.
But her words could just as easily pointed to herself.
The grand final will be Thwaites 232nd and final game in the national league.
But reflections on a star-studded career, highlighted by Netball World Cup and Commonwealth Games gold medals and, of course, her lone national league championship to date with the Vixens in 2009 in the former ANZ Championship, are the furthest things from Thwaites' mind.
For the 33-year-old, this is her 'next' game, not her 'last' game.
"I'm trying not to think about that, we still have a huge job ahead of us this weekend,' Thwaites said.
"I'm sure there will be time later to reflect and think about what I've managed to do with my career in that time.
"I've certainly been grateful for all of the opportunities I've had through netball, but the job is not done.
"We have our focus firmly and squarely on that grand final.
"The biggest challenge is the one that is right in front of you. I'm mindful of not wanting to pressure myself and all of those sorts of things.
"But I know each of us team-mates will keep each other on track and we'll get out there and hit the game hard, and hopefully it won't be too stressful for people back in Victoria watching the game in their arm-chairs."
Thwaites will be lining up in her fourth grand final.
Her first delivered a premiership with the Vixens in 2009 during her first stint with the club, while a pair of appearances with the New South Wales Swifts in 2015 and '16 ended in heartbreak.
Having navigated a netball season like no other inside a hub - and indeed a year like no other - Thwaites said comparisons in the build-up to past grand finals could barely be drawn.
She was, however, certain that everything that had been thrown the Vixens' way this year - the hours worth of training sessions in isolation at home during the pre-season, two weeks in quarantine after arriving in the bubble, and a rigorous schedule of constant away matches - had steeled and definitely not crippled their resolve.
"Obviously it's been a very different year this year. The other finals - although I've played a couple of away finals and a home final - this one is very different," she said.
"It's been 80 something days since we've slept in our beds. The fact we have been away for such a long time is something, as is the fact we have played every single one of our games as away games.
"There have been so many different hurdles and adversity that we have had to try and overcome this season.
"But we haven't come this far to only come this far.
"We are definitely wanting to take home that trophy in spite of everything we have had to overcome this season.
"I know, as a team, we are super proud of everything we have had to overcome. I think it comes down to basically knuckling down and focusing on the things that we can control and getting on with the job."
Thwaites has been an undoubted key in the Vixens' ascension to minor premiers and grand finalists following a standout season - her 18th at the top level.
It has been a season of change as much on the court as off it, with Thwaites spending far more time at goal attack, away from the traditional goal shooting position she has made her own at five clubs across the journey.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, the former Diamonds star was quick to embrace her changing role.
"It's thrown some different challenges, chopping and changing in different positions, but I've really enjoyed that challenge," Thwaites said.
"Even taking in the Super Shot and trying to work that to our advantage as well. That brings in some of the strategy and experience of being out there.
"But I think more than anything this year has been about just getting out there and enjoying it."
Underscoring the strength of their tight-knit relationship, Thwaites said her role change might not have succeeded without the strong degree of understanding between her shooting partners Mwai Kumwenda and Tegan Philip, who will also retire following Sunday's game.
The revolving set-up has seen all three players spend parts of, and even whole games, on the sidelines, but with an unflappable commitment to their team-first ethos.
"We're all fully understanding of the role we need to play for the team and for each circumstance," Thwaites said.
"But having that team-first mentality, and finding ways to contribute even if you do spend a few more minutes on the bench in a game, it's been a super-positive environment.
"What's important is that we use the strengths of each of the combinations and click into that really quickly, rather than taking some time to settle in.
"It's a unique benefit of what our team has been able to bring this year."
I've certainly been grateful for all of the opportunities I've had through netball, but the job is not done.Caitlin Thwaites
In a particularly trying season for players, Thwaites praised the support of friends, family, supporters and well-wishers, especially from her hometown.
She hopes to repay their faith and encouragement with a unique Vixens premiership win over a Fever team brimming with confidence following a comprehensive preliminary final win over Sunshine Coast Lightning, and a rival that is easily the competition's highest-scoring unit, due largely to the dominance of Jamaican Jhaniele Fowler.
"I'm feeling the love from Bendigo and I hope that everyone is doing okay and hanging in there," she said.
"I will definitely be trying to put on a show and send some waves and some kisses to mum and dad (Glenda and Patrick) in their lounge room. I would have loved to have them up there.
"We kind of got our heads around that early that it was going to be very unlikely they would be there.
"They will be watching on TV and I'm sure all the neighbours will be able to hear them cheering and screaming.
"I can't wait to get home and give them both a big squeeze."
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