YEARS of on and off-court toil and countless kilometres travelled between Bendigo and Melbourne have had their reward for Boroondara Express and Kangaroo Flat netballer Chelsea Sartori.
The star midcourter capped her best and easily most consistent season in Victoria's premier state league competition, by winning the Victorian Netball League's 2021 division one MVP award.
In an interrupted and shortened season, Sartori polled 22 votes to claim the award in emphatic fashion.
The Express captain and centre missed two of the 11 games her team played during the season with an ankle injury, meaning her haul of 22 votes came in just nine games.
Announced online on Thursday night, Sartori's win added to her honour earlier in the week of being named in the VNL division one team of the year alongside her Express and Kangaroo Flat team-mate Abbey Ryan and fellow Boroondara player Chevvone Thomson.
Sartori, who first joined the VNL in 2014 as a 19-and-under player at Ballarat Sovereigns, admitted to being genuinely shocked by her win as well as polling votes in every game she played.
"Honestly, it's crazy - I hadn't even seen I'd won it on Facebook before a lot of people. I just started crying, I couldn't believe it," she said.
"I had no idea at all this was coming.
"I really struggled when I came back from (the ankle injury), I lost a lot of match fitness and lost a bit of touch. I had to work really hard to get back into the (starting) seven.
"I did it at training at Kangaroo Flat on the Thursday before our first match back after the second lockdown and I ended up missing two VNL and four BFNL matches.
"I don't like missing any games, so I did everything I could to get back. It was a bit frustrating at the time, but I made it back and it has all worked out."
For Sartori, her awards success has gone some of the way to soothing the disappointment of a season without finals for both the Express and Kangaroo Flat after their respective seasons were scrapped.
The 9-2 Express were third on the ladder when the VNL season was cancelled, one win behind North East Blaze and Geelong Cougars (both 10-1), while the Roos were the ladder leaders with a 10-0-1 record when the BFNL season was abandoned.
The last time finals were played in both leagues in 2019, Sartori was on the end of grand final defeats, with the Express losing to North East Blaze and the Roos falling short of Sandhurst in a thriller at the QEO.
Atonement has painstakingly been a long time coming, the 24-year-old admits.
"Both teams definitely had a chance to take it out, so I was really looking forward to getting a crack at winning a premiership," she said.
"It obviously wasn't meant to be, so all we can do now is use it as motivation to come back better in 2022.
"After last year, I really set myself a goal of having a big crack at VNL.
"Having to travel more than two hours to training and games, it's a huge commitment and it can be really exhausting, but while the opportunity is there you need to take it and give it your all.
"I won't get the chance to play down there forever, so I'll work hard to make it last as long as I can."
Sartori's VNL journey started with Ballarat in 2014.
After a few seasons away from the competition, she joined Melbourne University Lightning in 2017 for one season before a return to the Sovereigns in 2018.
In 2019, she crossed to the Express and has not looked back, playing in a grand final in 2019 and now with an MVP award to her name.
But not everything has come easy for the Express skipper.
"In 2019, I struggled a little bit to get court time - I rarely started games and would come on at half time or quarter time," Sartori said.
"I found it hard to get into the game a bit, so this year I really set my mind to earning my spot and keeping it.
"The hard work to do that really made for a good season."
The newly crowned MVP was quick to praise her VNL club for its friendly and professional environment.
"It's a really great club, I love it. If ever you walk into that stadium it has a great feel," she said.
"You feel really welcomed as a new player. When I arrived everyone really made an effort to introduce themselves.
"The coaches we have are awesome, they've all played professionally.
"We're just a big family."
Sartori was thrilled to see three BFNL players, including star young Kyneton goal attack Claire Oakley (19-and-under), selected in teams of the year, especially her Roos team-mate and long-time friend Abbey Ryan.
"Abbey is very underrated for what she does - she has to catch some crazy passes that I throw to her, but I know every time I do she'll get it," she said.
"I love playing with her, she's just someone who brings the best out in the team-mates around her.
"Her season in both leagues was just phenomenal."
Sartori further praised the support of her Kangaroo Flat coach Jayden Cowling and her boss Brent Millar, at Johns Lyng Insurance Builders, for providing flexible working hours to allow her to train in Melbourne.
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