AFTER a four-year hiatus, Castlemaine is poised to return to the top grade of BFNL netball.
The Magpies have not fielded an A-grade team since 2017, but will fly into the 2022 season with a star new playing coach and a pair of well-known names in Victorian netball circles at the helm.
Former Adelaide Thunderbirds star and Scottish national Fiona Fowler (nee Themann) has signed with the club and will be joined as coach of the Magpies' A-squad by five-time Central Highlands league premiership coach Gary Cooke.
The 31-year-old Fowler played one previous season in the BFNL with Strathfieldsaye in 2015, the season the Storm made it through to the grand final against Golden Square.
In 2016, she lined up for Newbridge in the LVFNL, where she was part of the Maroons team, which broke a 48-year premiership drought.
It was one of three premiership wins that year for Fowler, who also savoured grand final success with Melbourne University Lightning in the VNL and as captain of Victorian Fury in the ANL.
On the back of a standout performance for Scotland at the 2015 Netball World Cup, Fowler was signed by Super Netball club Adelaide Thunderbirds for 2017 and played a second season in 2018.
She would make a surprise return to Super Netball with Collingwood Magpies in 2021 for a few appearances as a replacement for injured goal keeper Geva Mentor.
Fowler, who has moved to the Castlemaine region with her husband Jack and young son Teddy (nearly two), is excited by the challenge of leading the Magpies back to prominence in the BFNL.
"I am really keen to get started and get on board with Gary to help rebuild netball at Castlemaine," she said.
"Living back here now, the opportunity to get back into the Bendigo league, which is an amazingly strong league, is something I am really looking forward to.
"It's not all about the A-grade team, we're looking at the longevity of the club and the club having some consistency in the years ahead, which they haven't had for a while.
"Our plan is to really build, not just the A-grade, but the whole club.
"We have got some super under-17s coming up and we want to set them up for future success, not just for 2022.
"If you have 17s, who don't get the chance to look forward to the pinnacle of an A-grade team or successful A-reserve team, they are not going to hang around.
"It's fantastic the Castlemaine Football Netball Club is really investing in 2022 and wants the best for its netballers and wants a pathway for its juniors as there are some very good young netballers here."
Fowler, who grew up in and played her first netball for Mooroopna, has always had an affinity for grassroots netball and has never been afraid to give back to the sport.
She has played the past two seasons - 2019 and '21 - at Central Highlands club Hepburn under her new Magpies co-coach Cooke.
She said the pair was already busy on the recruiting front with some exciting announcements to follow.
"We've already spoken to a few girls, but our idea is to really get onto our local girls early and sell our interest to them," she said.
"That's ultimately who we want back.
"I can't say too much, but with my connections I will have a few girls coming from Melbourne to help support the team and help fill the gaps where necessary, but it won't be a Melbourne team, it will be a Castlemaine and Mount Alexander region team."
Fowler enjoyed an outstanding VNL season in 2021 with Melbourne University Lightning, being named in the championship division team of the year.
Co-coach Cooke is excited by the opportunity to step up to the powerful Bendigo league and the chance to help rebuild a proud club.
"I don't know what's happened in the past, but we are here to rebuild and restructure - we're clearly here to play finals, we're not mucking around," he said.
"It's a big challenge, no doubt, but we have our plans and we'll work on them over the next few months and try to pull it all together.
"I feel with someone of Fiona's standing coming into the league, she is probably is one of the biggest recruits the league has seen for a long time, without having followed the league that closely.
"She's played Commonwealth Games, she's played World Cup - she's an unbelievably talented netballer and is still in her prime.
"She's a great recruit. But we're really going to concentrate on the entire club, mentoring some of the young coaches already there and working on the skills of the young players.
"We'll obviously do some recruiting to see who is out there that wants to join a club and get some opportunities they might not have had elsewhere."
Cooke, who made the transition to netball from basketball, has been involved in the sport since the early 90s.
He previously played for the Victorian men's teams and coached the state under-17 men's team before a break.
Cooke returned to coaching in 2008 and has enjoyed much success in the Central Highlands league with five flags at Hepburn and 13 grand final appearances.
He was also a coach with former VNL club Ballarat Sovereigns.
It's fantastic the Castlemaine Football Netball Club is really investing in 2022 and wants the best for its netballers and wants a pathway for its juniors as there are some very good young netballers here.Fiona Fowler
The Magpies won just one game in their last A-grade season in 2017 under Deb Symes, which followed winless seasons in 2015 and '16 and two wins in 2014.
For Castlemaine president Caleb Kuhle, the return of an A-grade team and the rejuvenation of the netball program have been priorities through his two years as the head of the committee.
"I think we have done everything we possibly can now to ensure that happens," he said.
"Fiona and Gary are very high-quality coaches and Fiona's obviously a high quality player.
"We were lucky she moved to Castlemaine and I think she has seen the vision of the club and she obviously has the know-how and talent to make things happen.
"I always say things happen for a reason, so we are pretty stoked with it.
"We are so lucky to have both of these coaches."
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