"The Varsity Match is a unique event which brings with it a different energy to normal league matches"CULNC

In the year of England’s football World Cup heroics and penalty shoot-out successes, it is notable that the public should have picked the netball side’s last gasp Commonwealth Games triumph as their sporting moment of 2018. It confirmed the rising prominence of netball in the nation’s consciousness, a development welcomed by Blues netball captain Sophie Maitland.

‘I was so excited! I was up at 4am with my mum to watch’ she said, ‘there was an energy about netball in the media which was really exciting to be a part of’.

She will be hoping that same energy can be replicated this Sunday, as Cambridge University Ladies’ Netball Club host Oxford in the annual Varsity fixture. Having suffered defeat last year, Maitland is hoping home advantage can have an effect: ‘The support makes a huge difference on the court, it can really influence the outcome of the match and give the players that extra motivation to get the ball’.

Hoping for ‘huge crowds’, Maitland believes that those in attendance will be exposed to the sheer athleticism of the match: ‘I think most people don’t appreciate how fast and physical netball is when watched live’. The Varsity promotional video, put out by the club, aims to tackle some of the most pervasive preconceptions around the sport. ‘People tend to associate netball with the level played at school, which is great but watching high level netball or international standard is just another world altogether. These women are amazing athletes and the game is fast, strong and amazing to watch, so I wish more people knew that!’

“I think most people don’t appreciate how fast and physical netball is when watched live”

It has not been an easy year as captain for Maitland: ‘BUCS has been really challenging this year. The league as a whole has got more competitive, with a team coming down from the Premier Division and other universities really pushing their netball.’ Whilst the Blues remain winless in BUCS, she warns Oxford that this is no reason for complacency: ‘It has brought with it some of the best intensity of netball I have had over the last three years, with all the matches pushing us to our limits and enabling us to improve each game. The Blues have put out some immense performances this year, as Oxford will find out on Sunday’.

It is the process of dealing with setbacks that Maitland believes prepare her team best for the emotional intensity of a Varsity game: ‘We do a lot of sports psychology preparation in the run in to varsity to help us prepare. It is a unique event which brings with it a different energy to normal league matches, so it is important players can deal with the mental and physical pressures of the day.’

Maitland’s techniques have been embraced by her team, who complement her level-headedness in their programme notes: ‘Through the sports psychology she has developed, the squad have addressed many challenges and have come out stronger, and closer for it.’

And what of team spirit? Maitland has worked hard this year to create cohesion between not just the Blues, but the Jays and Devs as well: ‘We have tried really hard this year to integrate the whole club and do more team bonding activities.’ Formals and nights out in kit have brought the club closer together: ’I feel like [we] have a great culture and we pride ourselves on being a whole unit who support each other.

“I feel like we have a great culture and we pride ourselves on being a whole unit who support each other”

Maitland’s role is as important on the court as off it, and her teammates are at pains to emphasise her work ethic, noting that more often than not she finishes matches with blood-soaked socks, playing through the pain for the good of the team. In her final year at Cambridge, she is one of the most experienced players in the side, and so the emotions of a varsity clash will be nothing new: ‘[it’s] natural to feel the pressure, but I am excited to utilise that and get on court.’

‘My routine will be the same as before any netball match’ she says, when asked about any pre-match superstitions. It is not unusual to adopt a routine in top-level sport: tennis superstar Rafael Nadal admitted to having at least nineteen rituals which he carries out for each game, whilst footballer Ander Herrera has worn the same pair of shin pads since the age of eight. ‘I try not to endorse any pre-varsity superstitions, like lucky socks, because I believe you are in control of how you play on the day and what you put out on the court is down to you alone.’ It certainly sounds like the words of a captain.

This does not mean that the team won’t share some final varsity preparation however. The side come together to make banners, which will be proudly displayed at Sunday’s event. They then meet for a pre-game dinner, during which every player in the squad gets a card signed by each of her teammates with supportive messages, which are then read out the night before the match.

With just days to go until the Blues take to the court, Maitland is aware that her period as Blues captain is coming to an end, but she will look back on the time with great warmth: ‘It’s been a challenging year. I didn’t anticipate how much energy and work it would take to be the captain. Having said that, I learnt so much and would not change a thing. I will definitely look back on the year in a positive light and I feel fortunate to have had that opportunity.’

“I know what [the] players are capable of and I can’t wait to see them leave it all out on the court this Sunday”

Bowing out with a victory against Oxford would prove a storybook ending, and Maitland is quietly confident: ‘I know what [the] players are capable of and I can’t wait to see them leave it all out on the court this Sunday’.


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It is a rallying cry from the captain to her squad, and they will hope to reciprocate with a performance at the weekend. Whatever the result, the squad will surely miss Maitland as much as she will miss them; as they write in their programme notes: ‘Thank you, Captain. We owe this to you.’

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