CELEBRATING Gippsland’s shooting Stars.

The Gippsland Stars Victorian Netball League (VNL) club held their inaugural season launch last Wednesday, February 28.

The event was well attended by officials, board members, coaches, and players with their friends and family congregating at the Gippsland League offices in Traralgon (TRFM building).

Not only was the season launch a celebration to begin the Stars campaign, it was also a commemoration of the years of trial and tribulations to get Gippsland represented in the VNL.

The room had a sense of anticipation and excitement as the young athletes were handed their dresses.

One by one, the most talented young netballers in the Gippsland region received the number they were to play for the Gippsland Star’s first-ever hit-out on the Victorian stage.

Having only trained for a few months, the camaraderie with this group of young women was strong, cheering on one another as they collected their new Stars merchandise.

The Stars showed off some of their brand new uniforms.

Gippsland League General Manager, Daniel Heathcote spoke and thanked everyone in the room who played their part in building a club from scratch.

“A lot of work goes into getting a club up from scratch, so amazing job,” he said to those in the room.

Jodi Galea, the Gippsland Stars VNL committee chair, gave a heartfelt address to the team working behind the scenes.

“I’m really excited to be part of the process, and I’m excited to see how our players and our coaches will go this season,” she said

Galea also thanked the Gippsland League team for the momentous effort to get the club up and running.

“Congratulations to our coaches … they’re doing an awesome job each week at training, and watching their practice match against Casey last week was amazing,” she said.

“Good luck to all the girls for the season; we’re very proud of you all.”

Under 23s coach Jo Ballinger, who previously coached Sale and Maffra A Grade netball sides, and assistant coach Stacie Gardiner (from Drouin) told the Gippsland Times of their excitement to get the VNL season underway.

“I feel quite excited and quite privileged really to be part of something so great … there’s not a lot of VNL coaches in Victoria, so I think we’re very lucky to have the roles that we have,” Ballinger said.

Although the franchise has since sourced its home-grown talent, the recruitment process was no easy task, with both coaches admitting the player contract signing period was mayhem.

Despite the initial struggle, both coaches said they have secured a team they believe has the perfect mix of youth and experience that could achieve great things.

Jo Ballinger and Stacie Gardiner will aim to lead the team to success in its first year in VNL. Photos: Zaida Glibanovic

With Round 1 of the VNL starting tomorrow (Wednesday, March 6), the Gippsland Stars say they are ready to take on one of last year’s toughest opponents, North East Blaze.

“We’re playing a pretty tough competitor in Blaze,” Ballinger said.

Both Blaze Division 1 and 19 and Under teams were strong finals contenders in their respective competitions. Gardiner said the match against Blaze would be a good indication of the Stars’ competitiveness.

With two VNL-level practice matches under their belt, the Gippsland Stars have ironed out some minor issues in the preseason and found an ability to stay in games in tight moments.

The Gippsland Stars have selected Ava Gual from Drouin Football-Netball Club to captain the first-ever Gippsland Under 23 side; Gual has previously played VNL with Casey and Boroondara.

The side’s vice-captain will be Traralgon-grown Myah Healey, with extensive state representative experience. Healey has won a best and fairest at Casey in the VNL program and played elite-level basketball in the Big V and NBL1 programs. With the fountain of knowledge from these two young stars, Gippsland’s leadership is in good hands.

Ballinger took a moment to recognise the extensive opportunities the Gippsland Stars will mean for the region. She said one of the most important aspects of the elite netball club is its ability to make netball development more accessible for regional athletes.

Heyfield’s Jayde Parsons is eager to represent the Gippsland Stars.

Traditionally, netball talent from the region would have to travel to Melbourne to access sporting opportunities of this level. The travel and expense of elite netball development could often be a barrier for young women from Gippsland.

“For them to drive up to Melbourne twice a week, and they’ve probably got other netball on as well – and you know, school work and doing Year 12, it is out of people’s reach,” Ballinger said.

“Also, with the cost of living, they aren’t able to do it, whereas I feel like now it’s such a great opportunity for kids because they can carpool – it’s just accessible for them.”

Gardiner supported these sentiments, saying that the ultimate goal is to build netball in the region and make elite professional development a reality for those once traditionally marginalised by the netball pathway system.