In the grandstand: Eaton and sleepin’ netball

By Shepparton News

Order from the Tatura canteen on game day and you will most likely be served by a four-time Wellman medallist.

Gaye Eaton was a champion player at the Bulldogs and one of the best in the Goulburn Valley League and still playing her role as catering co-ordinator at the club that started a long time ago.

She has diaries and sheets of paper out to organise the orders for when Tatura Park hosted the GVL semi-final two weeks ago.

Running out of supplies for Tatura’s famous chicken schnitzel, gravy and cheese rolls or jam doughnuts would be disastrous, and it is a role Eaton served in while being a superstar on the courts.

After growing up in Congupna and then Shepparton, Eaton moved with her husband Darryl just as the Goulburn Valley Netball League was beginning to take shape.

‘‘Just as we were about to leave to go to Wodonga was when the GVL was about to start and I always remember coming to Shepp to watch the grand final,’’ she said.

‘‘I thought ‘gee here we are leaving and I could be part of this’, but I didn’t know it was going to be five years and then we moved back here.’’

Eaton, 63, focused on basketball in Wodonga, but still found time to be netball playing coach at Chiltern in the Ovens and King league.

Returning to Tatura in mid 1988, Eaton immediately started playing at Shepparton Netball Association to finish off the season, before being roped in to play at Tatura while the hairdresser gave Bulldogs stalwart John Ryan a haircut.

‘‘I was working at Mooroopna and he came in and I was cutting his hair and we were chatting away and he said ‘why don’t you come and play at Tat?’,’’ Eaton said.

‘‘And that’s seriously how it happened, I thought I’m going to be living here and I want to get involved.

‘‘So it’s been 30 years that I’ve been here which is crazy.’’

At Tatura Park she was moved into the position that would help turn her into a champion player for so many years.

‘‘I was always a goaler until I came to Tat, but in my first year here it was strange, there was an abundance of goalers, so I thought ‘ah well I better find myself a new position’ and that happened (moving into centre) and of course I loved controlling the systems,’’ Eaton said with a grin.

But having spent all except about five years during the past three decades coaching, Eaton knows the value of a centre that can control the game.

‘‘I’m not a control freak, but you can direct and it’s hard to coach that in a player,’’ she said.

‘‘If you’ve got a centre that can direct you’re in good stead, but it doesn’t happen a lot which is a shame because I’ve had teams where we just needed that one in the middle and it would have connected everyone.’’

Eaton’s Wellman medals came in 1990, 1991, 1993 and a joint victory alongside Echuca’s Penny Reinehr, who she credits as one of the best players she has seen.

The individual honours stemmed from her own want to improve and she took any opportunity to keep fit.

‘‘I always did extra myself because that’s what I’ve always done, so you’d have your normal two nights training and I’d always do a run or a bike ride or a bit of skipping or gym work at least another couple of nights a week,’’ Eaton said.

‘‘Our youngest son (Mark) played junior footy, so on a Sunday I’d run the juniors and it was really good because it would loosen up any soreness (from Saturday’s game) and I did that for under-14s and under-16s and once he went to thirds I stopped, but I loved doing that.

‘‘It was hard because Mark would always be at the bottom of the pack and he’d niggle a few players and they’d niggle him back and there were a couple of times where I nearly went out, but I thought ‘no you’re a boundary rider not a mother’.

‘‘So that was our whole weekend and then it would all start again.’’

Eaton’s career was lengthy and her time in A-grade only came to an end about 10 years ago, but that did not spell the finish of her time on court with the netball enthusiast unable to give it away completely.

‘‘I retired from A-grade eight years ago, or probably a bit more,’’ she said.

‘‘I thought ‘right, if I’m not going to play A-grade I’m not going to play at all’, but then of course I was coaching B-res and about halfway through the season they were a bit short and said ‘will you fill in?’ and I said ‘I’ll just fill in’ and then we got to the grand final that year, so we did that a couple of times.’’

But every time she pulled on the Bulldogs’ colours, Eaton said she would analyse her own performance at the end of the match.

‘‘It’s interesting, every game I would challenge myself when I went out and I’d come off and actually go through the game in my head after the game and if I was disappointed I would be really ticked off and so I’d work on that for the next game,’’ she said.

‘‘Every time I stepped onto the court I wanted 110 per cent from myself and thought I gave that 50 per cent of the time depending on who you were playing and if there were any extra challenges.’’

The most satisfying moment of Eaton’s GVL career came in the 1997 grand final against arch rival Tongala when the Bulldogs completed a sensational comeback to win the premiership 38-35 after trailing by seven goals at three-quarter time.

‘‘Tongala had organised a spa that night and they had the champagne all but popped and it was a hot day and we said ‘let’s just get out there’,’’ Eaton said.

‘‘I said ‘suck it up, let’s get out there and do it’.’’

The Blues gained two early goals in the last quarter to go nine ahead, but Tatura stayed composed.

‘‘It still didn’t fuss me and all of a sudden we broke a couple of centres and their goaler got pinged for stepping and we just came back and back and we won by three goals and the crowd was like you would not believe.

‘‘I’ve often said to my husband ‘what did I actually look like?’ because I felt like I was in slow motion, in a little bubble.

‘‘It was really weird, there wasn’t a panic and it all just happened.’’

Another major highlight came at the World Masters in Melbourne in 2002 when Eaton was part of the Goulburn Valley League team of players older than 35 that went to compete.

‘‘That was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,’’ she said.

‘‘We were in the open section and ... we were playing against ex-Australians and ex-Victorians and they played off in the grand final and we got bronze.

‘‘(The bronze medal game) was a draw (before extra time) and it was the best game, they reckon our game was better than the gold.

‘‘It was amazing and you do rise to the occasion the better the opposition and the better the players are around you.’’

Enormous levels of involvement naturally were a pathway to administration and Eaton became president of the league from 2000-06, taking over from Sue Fuller and preceding Jacqui Hudgson.

Her contribution to the league resulted in the B-reserve best-and-fairest being named after her as well as Eaton being the first female inductee into the Goulburn Valley League in June.

Eaton described the induction as ‘‘pretty enormous’’ as her involvement with the sport continues.

Still keeping fit, she would have no trouble fitting in with the current group and said the game had not altered much since she played.

‘‘It (netball) hasn’t changed much, there are still similar set ups with similar tactics and court play is still very similar,’’ Eaton said.

‘‘It’s interesting, they might think they are tweaking (drills) a little bit, but I look over when they’re training and I’m on my way to the Ballantyne Centre and have a bit of a peek.

‘‘They’re still doing the same drills, so it really is quite interesting.’’