April Brandley has learned to be strong. Beneath her warm and engaging personality lies a core of steel, forged through challenging and occasionally heart-breaking times. Through it all netball has been a constant; both part of the cause, and part of the cure.

Photo: Marcela Massey

A typical little Aussie, Brandley grew up in a happy home, playing netball from an early age. In the cruellest of blows, her mum passed away when she was about 14, changing the family’s life forever. Netball became an escape for the girl during a very bleak period.

“It was a really hard time for me, and I leaned on netball a lot. I could go to a game, be with my team, and feel happy again for a short time. Looking back now, I’m so grateful – I don’t know where I would have ended up without it. Netball was a shining light for me at the end of the tunnel during those hard, dark times – it gave me so much.”

Luckily, her Dad was of huge support to her. While dealing with his own loss, he encouraged her to keep playing. Recognising his daughter’s potential, he suggested she trial for the New South Wales 17 and Under team.

“I didn’t want to go,” Brandley said, “I was only 14 and had no belief what so ever that I would get in. Emotionally, it was a turning point for me when I got selected.”

Photo: Simon Leonard

Brandley was one of a group of young players who were all discovering their fire and passion for the game. They stayed largely together through NSW development pathways, winning seven titles in the 17, 19 and 21 and Under age groups. She then went into the residential program at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) where she spent two happy, but hardworking years.

“The elite and professional side of netball was such an eye opener for me. We were training twice a day, which I wasn’t used to, and it was my first time being away from home.

“I would question why I was doing it, and the answer was always because I loved playing netball and wanted to see what I was capable of. What would happen if I learned to believe in myself?”

After their term had finished, most of the AIS players were picked up by national league clubs. Brandley was devastated to be overlooked at the time. Her self-doubt returned and she’d started thinking about other career options. However, midway through the 2011 season she received a call from the Queensland Firebirds.

“Clare McMeniman had hurt herself and needed some recovery time before finals. It was such a rollercoaster ride; I was sad and feeling I wasn’t achieving what I had hoped to, and then I was so happy because I was getting the opportunity.

“During that game Lauren Nourse did her ACL. While it was terrible for her, it happened to work out that I went through the final series with the girls and we ended up winning the title. Anything can happen in sport and it really made me realise that you have to ride the highs as well as the lows. Hopefully they balance each other out.”

Photo: Simon Leonard

The NSW Swifts liked what they saw of Brandley on court and signed her up for the following year. With defenders like Mo’onia Gerrard and Sonia Mkoloma in the roster, she wasn’t getting much court time, but was learning a lot. Rob Wright joined the group, the coach who had selected her into her first state team, and continued to extend the young player.

A short stint in the Diamonds followed when April was 22, and she still remembers the call from national coach Lisa Alexander.

“I wasn’t expecting to be in the team, but Laura Geitz had an injury. Lisa messaged me asking if I was free to talk. If you get a message from Lisa, you do get a bit nervous about what is coming your way. But to get that phone call – I was a teary mess. It’s what every athlete dreams of, representing your country.”

April made her debut on tour in England, but was abruptly dropped from the team after her first game. Alexander told netball journalist Linda Pearce (in 2016*) that, “”She got dumped out pretty quickly because, basically she didn’t do the work off the court that she was supposed to do.”

It was a decision that Brandley understood, saying, “I didn’t back myself enough. I thought a lot of my career opportunities had come about through luck, and I didn’t own enough that I deserved to be there. Having that self-belief drives you to want to push harder. Missing out on a team sucks, but it really reignites the flame of how much you do want it.

“The ‘fun’ times of missing selection after that tour made me re-evaluate. Playing elite sport is very reflective in your life, it really makes you a better person away from the court as well. It’s great to be a good athlete, but if you can be a good team person you’re going to make your team and the sport better.”

Photo: Simon Leonard

At the Swifts, Brandley wasn’t getting much court time at goal defence, which she needed to improve her game and her confidence.

“Going into the fourth year I felt like I’d done my time on the bench. Growing up I was a proud NSW player and had built my identity around that. I always thought I would be a Swifts player throughout my career – a one club girl – but things don’t always work out that way. With Julie Corletto coming to the team I knew my options would be limited, although she would have been amazing to learn from.”

A number of clubs were interested in the talented defender, but Brandley chose to make her new home in Western Australia. She’d clicked with coach Stacey Rosman on the phone, the beach lifestyle was attractive, and she thought the opportunity to train daily with Australia’s starting shooters, Caitlin Bassett and Nat Medhurst, too good to refuse.

Photo: Simon Leonard

While her family teased that a move to New Zealand would have been closer, the distance from her support network, while hard, was a pivotal step in her career.

“It was a huge challenge,” she said. “Both moving, and being outside my comfort zone. It was a huge turning point for me. I was a woman on a mission, I was running up those hills and doing everything that I could. I didn’t know what I was capable of, and didn’t want to be the person holding myself back. I remember thinking, ‘If I’m on my own team, what could I actually achieve?’”

After two years with West Coast Fever, Brandley was ready to return to the Eastern States. She said, “I’d loved being there, but I felt like I was at a crossroads in netball. I could either stay where I was, within my comfort zone, or I could further challenge myself, and that sparked a little fire within me. I’m still not at my full potential, and I wanted to see what further I could achieve.”

Photo: Marcela Massey

The decision was made to join Collingwood, who were establishing a netball team in the new Suncorp Super Netball league. She wanted to be part of the Magpies legacy, while building a new team from the ground up. And while it was joked about, “My husband and I did everything backwards; we got married but were still living apart!” the opportunity for the newlyweds to finally be together in Melbourne, after living on opposite sides of the continent, was irresistible.

Despite putting together a stable of stars, Collingwood underperformed this year.

“There was a lot of hype and expectation, which was great for the sport, but there were so many ideas around what our team should be like, rather than what we actually did well. I think that crowded us. There are so many ways in which we can improve and function better together.

“We would have preferred to finish the season with a gold medal, but the lessons that we learned from not achieving that were probably far more valuable. Because you learn through the hard times – you learn about resilience and foundation and our place in the club’s history, and that’s really going to take us places together. It does take time to build those connections; a ‘team of champions versus a champion team’ kind of mentality.

“Everyone in the Suncorp Netball league is super talented, very fit and strong, so what is going to make you different, make you successful? I think some of it comes down to the mental side of sport. If the mind doesn’t want to do something, or you have an attitude that isn’t helpful, you are not really going to produce a great performance.”

Her newfound belief, developed while at the Fever, hadn’t gone unnoticed and at the end of 2015 she fought her way back into the Diamonds. This year, following retirements and unavailability, she suddenly finds herself the most experienced player in a young defensive unit, despite having just 14 caps to her name. The foursome achieved above expectations, and Brandley believes that they have the potential to grow further.

“Defence is an attitude and a mentality, a mindset. That is something that I learned from Mo’onia. She was so intimidating before she even took the court.”, she laughs.

Photo: Simon Leonard

“As a defender you have to almost think they are passing the ball to you, you have to go out and make it happen. When I think about defence, I think, ‘Get it, get it done, never give up.’ You need some grunt about you!

“I think in that loss to New Zealand (in the Netball Quad series) we lacked that a little bit. There is so much we can take from that match to learn and grow, where we need to improve in our game. But in saying that, we don’t want to be learning from defeat, we want to be learning from our winnings as well.”

Brandley has experienced the adversity of both personal loss and setbacks during her netball career. It’s been a massive learning curve that has made her value and enjoy life all the more.

“The lows make you really appreciate what you do, and put it into perspective. While it’s horrible at the time, you need those moments to spur you on and challenge yourself. Without lows, you can’t expect the highs!

“The journey is so important to me. Why am I playing netball? I love the sport, the people, being part of a group. I’ve made so many everlasting friendships and memories. I’ve learned so much about myself. A small-town girl, had some hard times growing up, and really didn’t think I would ever play for Australia.

“I honestly didn’t know what I was capable of when I was younger; I didn’t believe in myself. You can achieve that by putting yourself into situations which are a little bit uncomfortable and challenging yourself, to see where you are at and where you need to grow. If you love something enough you will put in the work, get through the hard times and enjoy the high times.”

Brandley’s “amazing” support group – her family and closest friends – have been on the emotional rollercoaster along with her. They know where she has been, what she’s achieved and have faith in her belief that she has more to give. They’re her cheer group at games, her rock, her sounding board.

Her beloved mum is still very much part of that. “When I reflect on it, I think I underestimated how tough losing her made me, having that adversity so early in my life. It’s my motivation a lot of the time. Mum was so much a part of my career, and I play for her now.”

 

* – Pearce, L. (2016). Constellation Cup netball, 2016: Diamond April Brandley’s second coming. The Sydney Morning Herald: 08/10/2016 Retrieved from: http://www.smh.com.au/sport/netball/constellation-cup-netball-2016-diamond-april-brandleys-second-coming-20161006-grwgte.html

 

Twitter: @Summerhill1003
Cover image: Marcela Massey