The bitumen netball courts in Rochester — a Victorian town ravaged by flood waters late last year — are a metaphor for the women who run netball there: Bloody tough.
Located just a few hundred metres from the Campaspe River, the courts and surrounds sat under contaminated floodwater for days.
Fences, signage, seating and children’s play equipment were destroyed or damaged, and the small wooden netball club rooms — which sit more than 1 metre above ground level — were inundated, ruining the flooring, toilets, showers and netball gear inside.
Once the water subsided and the sludge, silt and debris had been cleaned away, the courts — which are home to the Tigers, the netball club attached to the local football club, and a junior association — were “spongy and soft”, like a gymnastic mat.
Rochester Football/Netball Club netball president Katie Rasmussen and her sister-in-law, Jac Rasmussen, the president of the Rochester Netball Association, feared the worst.
“Almost every single person in Rochester was in disaster mode in the immediate aftermath — because all but a handful of houses were flooded, along with every business — but, as soon as the water went down, we headed to the courts and it looked bad … really bad,” Katie explained.
“I didn’t think there was any chance we’d be able to play netball here in the 2023 season, it was such a mess. You couldn’t even tell they were netball courts really.”
Once “outsiders could get into town again”, representatives from Netball Victoria and Emergency Recovery Victoria started co-ordinating the heavy-duty clean-up, which included calling in local volunteer CFA brigades. Next, a call was put out to the community on social media.
“Even though people had so much going on in their own lives, trying to find somewhere to live, people turned up to help,” Katie said.
“There were a couple of volunteers there that day who I didn’t even know. They just rocked up with shovels and gloves. It was incredible.”
A race against the clock
Once cleaned, the extent of the damage to the playing surface was evident.
“We knew we’d have to replace lots of infrastructure, but the courts were our main concern,” Katie said.
“When you walked on them, they were really spongy, soft and bouncy. It was very strange.
“It felt like a worst-case scenario. Not being able to play at home would have been so hard. Everyone had been through so much.”
However, amazingly, the courts dried out in the days and weeks following the disaster and a recent audit by Netball Victoria gave the courts the tick of approval, meaning the Tigers were able to train on them and start their season.
Rochester then hosted Kyabram in round one of the Goulburn Valley Football/Netball League, winning in three of five netball grades.
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“It’s kind of amazing to think the courts survived like they did,” said Jac, who heads up the junior association that feeds into the Tigers.
“The fences have been replaced, lots of damage is still visible, but they build stuff tough around here.”
Road to recovery
What didn’t survive the flood was the huge, pre-season tournament Rochester’s junior and senior clubs usually host in early March.
Attracting teams from across Victoria, the two-day event usually raises more than $5,000.
With key tournament organisers such as Katie, Jac and committee member Meagan Keating either not living in town after being made homeless by the flood or in caravans, and the rooms not being usable, it just proved too difficult.
“We were all stretched really thinly with what was going on in our own lives. So, while we had lots of offers of support and even to host the event somewhere else, we just decided to call it,” Katie said.
That left a huge hole in the netball budget. To help fill it, the joint football/netball committee came up with a new membership category for 2023 called “My Shout”, a way for those living outside Rochester to help.
By buying a $50 individual or $100 family membership, people could ensure players, members, supporters and townspeople would not have to pay $10 or so to get into club home games at Rochester Recreation Reserve.
“We are a sporting club, but we are about more than footy and netball, we want to bring people together and provide a safe, inclusive space for everyone,” the club said in promoting the membership.
“We believe sport is an incredible vehicle for social connection. Whether it’s cheering your team on, having a beer, or just dropping in to be amongst people who get what you’re going through, we want you to feel welcome here.
“We are walking the long road to recovery and we don’t want anyone walking it alone.”
Help from all corners
In October, Katie said, the response was incredible, with helpers coming from all over Australia, just turning up to clean river silt off the courts.
“Before the season even began, we exceeded our normal number of annual members with My Shout memberships,” Katie said.
“It’s many thousands of dollars for the club and means people who are still struggling with the impact of the flood and the cost-of-living crisis, have one less thing to worry about.
“We were blown away by the response.”
With the court safe and the membership drive taking the financial pressure off, the club’s netballers were able to have a “decent pre-season” ahead of round one.
“Netball is a constant part of the heartbeat of the town. So, when it was up and running again, it was a big piece of the puzzle of ‘recover and reconnect’, which is something of a theme for the town at the moment,” Katie said.
Coach of the Tigers’ A grade side Rachel Whipp said netball in Rochester has done what it always does: bring women and girls together.
“We weren’t sure what sort of turn-out there would be for trainings, given just about everyone in town lost their home in the flood and was dealing with their own trauma, but it’s been amazing,” she said.
“You always have a few who hang around after a Thursday night training, but this year, there’s been lots of long chats — and plenty of hugs. It’s a place to just be.”
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Erin Delahunty is a freelance sports and feature writer.
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