Tracy Gillies experienced great success as both a coach and player in the Ovens and Murray League and helped set the foundations for Yarrawonga to flourish. But the two-time Toni Wilson Medallist and Hall of Fame inductee is the first to admit she navigated the lows before she reached the highs. The Border Mail's Georgia Smith caught up with the devoted Pigeon at JC Lowe Oval.
Georgia Smith: What started your love of netball?
Tracy Gillies: My family moved around a lot when I was a kid and I lived in a lot of country towns. We moved to a place called Jeparit in the Wimmera Mallee near Horsham. It was a farming community of a couple of thousand people. Their footy club had what was called midgets and I would ride my bike as an eight-year-old and hang around the club. I started training with them and eventually they got sick of me hanging around and picked me. Then we moved here and I started playing junior netball and it just went from there. I just love team sports. I played a bit of tennis, but it was too individual for me. I played basketball as well, but netball was my passion.
GS: How did you come to join Yarrawonga?
TG: The Ovens and Murray at the time didn't have a netball competition, so I was playing for Mulwala in the Murray League. I was looking to improve my game so I went and played in Shepparton. I was fortunate enough to be selected in some representative teams which then led to me playing State League in Melbourne for four years. In amongst that the O and M commenced their competition in 1993. I was approached in early 1995 to come and play. I'd stopped playing in Shepparton and thought why not, it'd be a great opportunity.
GS: Enjoy playing in Melbourne?
TG: It was wonderful. It was just an opportunity that I grabbed with both hands. It was a team made up of people from Shepparton, Kyabram and Echuca. We were playing top level at the time on a Wednesday night and were playing against Australian and state representative players. It was such a great experience.
GS: Come up against some big names?
TG: Simone McKinnis, who coaches Melbourne Vixens, was someone I played against, as well as former Australian representative Shelley O'Donnell. Also a very young Sharelle McMahon. She would have been about 15 or 16 at the time and even back then she was a superstar. It was incredible watching her at the end of the court.
GS: What were the early years of O and M like?
TG: Yarrawonga at the time was just a really young club. We were really getting thrashed by some of the stronger clubs like North Albury and Wang Rovers. It was difficult but it was exciting at the same time because you could see the potential in not only the competition, but the club.
GS: What was the turning point?
TG: We just had so many great families at the club. I think we just started to heavily focus on our juniors. We looked at ways to bring more juniors to the club and I think the C-grade competition was introduced in that period. I think a lot of clubs adopted it as a senior team, but we didn't. We made a conscious decision that we'd put our juniors in that grade and had immediate success with it. They just started developing and coming through our B and A grade teams.
GS: Happy to see under-16s introduced?
TG: Absolutely. We were pushing for that because in Yarrawonga, and a lot of the smaller clubs like Corowa and Myrtleford, we fight the minor leagues for our players. Not only netball, but football as well. What can happen is a family will go to a club like Rennie, Mulwala or Tungamah because some of them provide for down to under-11s. We just can't get them out of there then. By implementing that junior grade it gave us more opportunities.
GS: You coached the Pigeons to two premierships but didn't play in an A-grade flag at the club?
TG: The first one we won in A-grade in 2001 I was pregnant so I missed that year. In 2009, when we won our second, I was playing B-grade and we won that premiership as well. I never got to experience it in A-grade as a player. To coach, particularly the first one, we had such a young team and from where we'd come from, it was just such an incredible achievement. In 2009, we'd lost a lot of grand finals leading into that. We had had a bit of heartbreak, so to win that one was pretty special for different reasons.
GS: 2001 grand final was a nail-biter?
TG: Albury had beaten us three times before then by less than two goals. On grand final day the scores were level the whole game and nothing was splitting us. We fell a couple of goals behind and fought back and the scores were level when the umpire signalled the end of the game. One of their players infringed and the umpire advanced the ball to the goal ring. Our goal shooter, Sandy Roberts, shot the goal. We actually won after the siren.
GS: Hard to watch?
TG: It was horrible being on the sidelines because you have no control over what's going on. We actually won in double extra time in the prelim to get into that game, so we had two really exciting finals.
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GS: Next flag just as special?
TG: The second one I coached we won pretty comprehensively against Wang Rovers. We had virtually two A-grade defensive lines. At half-time we brought two defenders off and put two others on. I remember the coach looking up and saying to me 'you've got to be kidding, we've just played against one A-grade defence and now you're bringing the second on.'
GS: Appreciate them more having had so much heartbreak prior?
TG: Definitely. The girls now don't know anything but to win. 2019 and 2018 I don't think they made the grand finals and it was quite a shock because they just weren't used to that. Everything they'd experienced involved playing in finals, or in the grand final. You do appreciate it because they're very hard to get to and then they are 10 times harder to win. You can do everything right and still fail on the day. You just have to have everything going your way and all of the stars need to align.
GS: Funny moments celebrating?
TG: Some of our celebrations after grand finals have been pretty funny. One year we were trying to build a bit of morale and for the month of the finals we had everyone fancy dress for training. That brought out some personalities.
GS: Some good costumes?
TG: I cleaned out my bridesmaids cupboard one year and everyone came round and raided my dresses and we all wore those. I think one night there might also have been some pretty hideous lycra that was pretty funny.
GS: You won not one, but two Toni Wilson medals.
TG: You never play for individual accolades, but it's always nice when you get them. To win one was amazing, but to win a second, I felt very special.
GS: Enjoy attending the nights?
TG: I'd been to a couple when I joined the competition just to support the club and league. They were a great night and very professional. The first one we took a bus up and had a lot of fun, with absolutely no idea at all. The second one I think they'd started inviting players. I went thinking I might have polled some votes but had no expectation of winning it. I think the same night Johnny Brunner won it for the football and he wasn't there and had to be dragged up. That was pretty special having the two of us win it on the same night.
GS: Toughest opponents?
TG: Lindy Singleton was one. We always had some great tussles. Fiona Boyer from North Albury. We played a lot of netball together at State League level and coached against each other for years. She was such a clever and crafty player and coach. From Wodonga Bulldogs, Liona Edwards and Rebecca Cameron. We always had to plan how we were going to try and stop her. There's so many great players threaded throughout the years.
GS: You then joined Lindy Singleton as the second O and M netball Hall of Fame inductee in 2016.
TG: That was pretty incredible. Netball's quite young and there's a lot of history with the football, so to get netballers inducted so early is very special. It's an accolade that doesn't only go to players, it can go to people who have been involved in administration. To be thought of in that regard was pretty special.
GS: You were named captain of the O and M team of the past 25 years alongside three other Pigeons. Was that good to see?
TG: With the sustained success we've had as a club it would have been hard to not put a lot of Yarra players in it. Selecting those sides is a really difficult job.
GS: Who helped set the club up for success?
TG: Early days we had Briana Cossar as our captain in 2001. Then we had a core group of young ones who had come through our ranks. There was Bridget Cassar, Sarah Leslie and Rebecca Carlyle who were part of that premiership. The core group that then went through were Annalise, Laura and Kaitlyn Bourke, Steph and Kylie Tyrell and the Davis girls.
GS: Quite a few sisters at the club?
TG: We had a lot of families that had daughters. They'd all grown up as friends as well, which I think contributed to our success because they already had those relationships. It was an incredibly exciting time at the club watching those young girls who became senior players.
GS: You fell into coaching?
TG: I've always had a picture in my mind about how things should be and how I like them done, so I think I just naturally fell into it. I like teaching people how to do things, so I wanted others to be given the opportunities that I've been given. I just thought what better way than to pass on what I'd been taught. Being coached by some top coaches helped me a lot.
GS: Any standout players you coached?
TG: Steph Tyrell and Bridget Cassar were pretty special. From a very young age they just had such an understanding of the game. It was just about waiting for them to become physically stronger, because they were coming up against some pretty tough opponents. Once that happened, it just came naturally to them. Also all of the Bourke girls. I played alongside Laura in the B-grade premiership and I coached Kaitlyn and Annalise. They're just naturally gifted athletes. All of the Davis girls are very special as well. Lauren Mulquiney is another one. She's played so many games at the club and is a stalwart here now.
GS: You also played and coached O and M representative netball?
TG:Fiona Boyer and I coached it together a couple of times. I think it's really important that continues because the pathways for netball I think have narrowed since I went through the system. Particularly when you're playing footy league netball, you have to have access to the rep netball to continue to improve. I think it's a very important part of what you do.
GS: How did you know it was time to end your playing career?
TG: I think my body just gave up. I was still playing in my early 40s and played in a B-grade premiership in 2009. That side probably could have played against most of the other A-grade sides in the competition. It was a lot of fun but my back kept seizing up and I was still struggling to get my shoes on by Wednesday. It was just preventing me from doing other things. As much as it would have been great to keep going, we had so many other players. I came back and filled in a couple of times the next year. You just know I think. I just miss competing. I'm a competitive person and I've always been that way. To not have that outlet took a while to get used to.
GS: Did you deal with many injuries?
TG: I was lucky. I had no knee injuries, although I'm paying for it a bit now. I had a couple of bad ankle injuries and torn calves and hamstrings.
GS: You also spent some time in the Murray League?
TG: I went back to the Murray league and played with some friends. I was going to retire and thought I just needed a break from Ovens and Murray A-grade. Some friends were playing at Mulwala and I had played in a premiership there years ago. My husband had played and coached footy there as well. I went back there and we lost a grand final. I felt like I still had something to offer so I came back to Yarra.
GS: You had come back to coach the club's A-grade last season?
TG: I was still around the club and always only a phone call away. By the end of the 2019 season Laura and Kaitlyn were stepping aside and I thought I'd like to get back involved. We had a ripper preseason. We'd really recruited well and everyone was really fit. Then COVID hit and shut us down. Just with work and personal responsibilities, I just wouldn't have been able to fit it all in this year. I thought better to put my hand up and say that instead of getting halfway into a season and saying I couldn't be there. Unfortunately I had to step aside.
GS: You'll make history as a COVID coach.
TG: That's an unusual accolade to hold, the coach that wasn't.
GS: Future looking good at Yarrawonga?
TG: I think COVID will have an impact on a lot of clubs. I don't know at a junior level, but particularly at a senior level. Having that year off was like a breath of fresh air. I really hope that it gets going again this year because I think, from a junior perspective, we risk losing having a whole generation of players, not only netball, but football as well. We've got some really good juniors coming through.
GS: Proud of what you've achieved in netball?
TG: I had a lot of great support around me and I certainly didn't achieve what I did on my own. I had a great friend, Loretta Casey, and she supported me the whole way through. She coached our first premiership at the club in B-grade in 1997 and was right beside me the whole way through. People like Bert Tait, who was president while I was coaching, he and Kay were just such great supporters. Neil and Raelene Davis, the list goes on. I think the club wouldn't have achieved that success without those people. You have to have good people around you and I was very lucky that I did.