Cathy made a number of appearances from the bench during Grangetown’s first year in the top division and, aged just 17, she has recently earned a place in the Leeds Rhinos U19 Elite Academy.
Being 17 also means she is able to start learning to drive, and we met up shortly after a lesson that appeared to have been ever-so-slightly stressful…
I made a mental note to avoid any mention of closed junctions, before asking Cathy about when her interest in netball began. “I first started playing when I was seven. We played netball at school and then Steph [Rule] started running this club on a Sunday morning; I joined the club and it was Steph who recommended Grangetown … and I’ve been here ever since!”
Cathy still plays netball at school [Teesside High School in Stockton] - actually she does a bit more than just playing netball: “I’m under 19 netball captain at school, I’m also Sports Captain, and I coach the year 7, 8 and 9 teams as well as our senior team.”
Clearly Cathy’s ability on the netball court has been apparent from an early age, but has that meant playing in higher age groups to allow her game to develop? “When I was younger, I just played with my age group, but when I was about 11, I remember having my first game for the under 19s. I also played in the under 14 national finals in Newcastle when I was 11; and I did the same the year after as well. When I was 13, I was picked for the under 16 national squad, but didn’t play; I was involved for the next two years though.”
So how hard was the transition from being one of the outstanding players in an age group, to one of the youngest players in an older squad where even a couple of years can make a big difference to strength, physical development and on-court experience?
“Yes, at first it’s quite hard to adapt,” Cathy admitted. “Skills like passing and catching are adaptable, but then you have to get used to the physicality and speed of the game. You have to learn to react quicker, and if you have to take a few more knocks, well that’s just part of the game. You work hard, you get stronger and quicker, and obviously the court experience is so important.”
And what about confidence? It’s not usually an issue when you’re starting out, but when you’re developing and improving so quickly, does there come a point when nerves or even doubt creep in?
“I never used to get nervous before games, even at national finals I was always fine; but yes it has changed as I’ve got a bit older. The importance of games changes though; a Saturday morning friendly is one thing, but when you’re playing Prem or for Leeds Rhinos, it’s a totally different kind of pressure; especially if you’re in one of the shooting positions where it’s really obvious if you’re not doing well. You’ve just got to take each game as it comes really.”
Oh no, you’ve just thrown in a cliché!
Cathy chuckled: “I love a little cliché!”
The importance of the mental aspect of sport cannot be overstated; and often, mental strength or the ability to perform to your best under the most intense pressure is what separates a fine athlete from an elite athlete…
“I remember at the under 14 national finals, we were going goal for goal with this team, I got the ball under the net and I suddenly thought ‘what if I miss this; it’s really important that I don’t miss’; and I missed…
“I can recall one of the coaches telling me a quote,” Cathy continued, “I think it was from Michael Jordan, about it not mattering how many shots you’ve missed, so long as you have the confidence to take the next one. The shot might be important, but it’s just a shot and you have to learn to try and put those negative thoughts out of your mind. Breathing is really important as is being able to just focus on the job in hand and not the consequences.”
But is that element of psychology something you’ve been coached, or something that you’ve had to deal with yourself?
“I think it’s probably a bit of both. Coaches will give you advice about how best to relax, but I’ve always had great support from my Dad. He’s a proper ‘netball Dad’, he would help me with my shooting technique when I was younger, and now he’ll talk to be about how to deal with pressure, how to take the context out of the situation, and just do what you’ve done so many times before.”
Moving on to Leeds Rhinos, you’ve been involved with the club for a while, and these are exciting times in West Yorkshire with a Super League franchise under Dan Ryan coming in 2021.
“Definitely. I was in the under 17 Elite Academy last season, and I always wanted to trial for the under19s this year; so initially I had to go for some screening at York University, then we had to go through another two weeks or so of screening to decide who would go into the Elite Academy and who would join the Futures Academy. There are around 20 players in the Elite squad, I think we play most of the Super League Academy sides over the next few months, and there’s a big NPL (Netball Performance League) tournament next summer.
“My head coach is Emily Perry, and her assistant is Jan Hemsley. I haven’t actually met Dan Ryan yet, but he’s awesome, and I definitely want to try and be a part of the Super League franchise. I am ambitious; I want to play Super League, I want to play Prem, and the dream is always to play for England isn’t it?! The Roses have achieved so much and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”
With experience at both the Rhinos and Grangetown, who does Cathy rate as the toughest players she’s come up against on court?
“I think that was last season’s Prem game against Oldham. I can remember when we were warming up, I looked down the court and thought ‘I’ve seen her on the TV’, or ‘she’s played for the Roses’, and then the realisation sets in that we’re actually playing them. Laura Malcolm or Kerry Almond would be two of the best I’ve faced so far… they’re just insanely good.”
Staying with Prem, your preferred position is goal attack. Grangetown are fortunate to have players like Ash [Neal] and Brie [Grierson] who are both top-class athletes. There must be some element of frustration if you don’t get court time; but also it must be great to have the chance to be around players of that ability.”
Cathy’s response was telling and revealed a lot about the teenager’s maturity and attitude: “If I didn’t find it frustrating or if I wasn’t bothered about not being on court; then I wouldn’t be able to achieve the right level of performance when the chances come; and that wouldn’t be right for me or for the team.
“Of course, there’s always a desire to be on court, but I do find it amazing watching Ash, Brie, Tuaine [Keenan], Genevieve [Slater], Billy [Katie Knox], Vicky [Rees], Ria [Small] and Jenny [Mrozik] all of these great players. I learn so much watching their court craft, their movement, the passes they make. When they’re on the bench between quarters talking about what they’re going to change or do better in the next 15 minutes, or what they’ve done well, I just pick up on everything, absorb it all, and try and bring new things into my game – like Ash’s no-look pass; that’s something I desperately want to be able to do!”
Cathy is in her final year at school, studying English Literature, History and Sport, all of which means that following the pressure of ‘A’ level exams, there will be the move into further education (the self-confessed “book nerd” is hoping to do a degree in English Literature). Will her association with the Rhinos have some bearing on her choice of university?
“Yes, I think so. The Universities I’m considering at the moment are all around the Yorkshire area: Leeds, Sheffield, York, York St John, and Manchester as well. It would make it much easier to get to training, and less time driving home however many nights a week.”
And fewer closed junctions…
Yes I know I ignored my mental note.
“Honestly Richard, coming to the junction, stopping, getting into first gear and checking both ways ... it’s just too much!
“But yeah, I’d want to be close to Leeds; I’d still like to be able to come up and play Prem at Grangetown too…”
Cathy rates Tamsin Greenway as one of her favourite all-time players: “For me, she’s one of the best wing attack/goal attacks that has ever played the game. Her court craft and vision are incredible. I was lucky enough to be coached by her at the Yorkshire Coaching Conference and it was brilliant; there was a reason for everything she said, and everything she said made so much sense.
“I really like Serena Guthrie too. She’s got incredible dedication and athleticism - and she’s as hard as nails as well. If we’re sticking to the Roses, there’s Natalie Haythornthwaite too; she’s awesome. But if we’re going international, I think I’d say Maria Folau. Her shooting is unbelievable. She makes it look effortless – she’ll shoot a three-pointer from outside the circle in Fast-5 as if it was the easiest thing in the world.”
That’s another interesting point though; Maria Folau is probably 6’2”, a “big lass” in Cathy’s words; but Cathy is never going to be 6’2”…
“No, that’s for sure!” she laughed. “I suppose there are positives and negatives to being fairly small. The positives are speed, bounce passes that tall defenders probably aren’t going to be able to reach, and if I run quickly, they won’t be able to see me over their shoulder!
“On the other hand, I’m never going to be able to hold for an over-ball … it just won’t happen; but you’ve just got to play to your skills, your strengths, and make it as hard as you can for whoever is marking you.”
Cathy then explained she’s hoping to develop as a wing attack in addition to her abilities in the goal attack role. I was interested to know whether that would give Cathy some sense of freedom, as she would not have the pressure associated with the shooting positions.
“There’s still pressure at wing attack; it’s just a different kind of pressure to the shooters. There’s pressure to get the centre pass, to feed the shooters and be an option; but so long as I’m helping my team and hopefully making a difference on court, I wouldn’t mind what position I was playing.”
I wanted to know if Cathy played any other sports, but I’d also heard she was quite musical…
“I play the saxophone, and I’ve got a grade 8 in singing as well.”
By now I was feeling increasingly inadequate. Is there anything Cathy isn’t good at?
“Driving! And Physics. I only got a ‘B’”
For the record I got an ‘A’ in Physics … some semblance of adequacy duly restored!
“As far as sports go, at school I always had the need to be in every single team: hockey, athletics, rounders, and all that jazz; but I’m focussing on netball now, because I know that’s what I have to do if I want to become a performance athlete.”
So when you put on that Roses dress for the first time, do I get free tickets..?
“Of course you do!”
And so with Cathy officially six minutes late for training that’s where our conversation ended.
There will be countless 17 year-old netballers aiming to reach the top of the sport, and so many diverse factors that will eventually determine the few who will achieve senior international honours. However, what struck me about Cathy is that despite clearly being gifted at pretty much everything she does, be it academic, sporting or musical, there is no trace of arrogance at all.
She is an outgoing, natural and engaging young woman, with a quiet assurance and confidence in her ability as a netballer; and is clearly both motivated and determined to work hard to become the best she can possibly be.
Cathy also has the awareness and maturity to recognise that she can learn from every game (whether playing or watching), every training session, and every conversation with her peers … frankly, taking everything into account, it’s difficult not to be anything other than hugely impressed.