Patience in a young squad has paid dividends for the NSW Swifts after they ended their 11-year title drought in a dominant 64-47 win over the Sunshine Coast Lightning and in doing so ended their Brisbane final hoodoo.
Against all odds the Swifts ended the Lightning's two-year title dominance, with their young stars Sam Wallace, Sarah Klau and Maddy Turner all producing MVP performances to shut down some of Super Netball's best players and complete an epic two-year turnaround.
Ravaged by departures at the end of the 2016 ANZ Championship with six of their stars including Laura Langman, Kim Green and Sharni Layton leaving for greener pastures, the Swifts were left with just a barebones squad, and were forced to look far and wide for replacements.
Young international imports Helen Housby from England and Wallace from Trinidad and Tobago were quickly brought into the shooting end while defender Klau and midcourter Maddy Proud from the Thunderbirds were also signed to bulk up the squad. Despite the international experience, it was the youngest squad in the competition with eight players under 24-years-old and an average age of just 22. They finished sixth with just three wins, one draw and 10 losses.
The Swifts kept the faith in their young side ahead of the 2018 season and re-signed their entire starting roster, but in a shock move coach Rob Wright defected to the Magpies. With a new coach on board in Briony Akle, by Round 6 the Swifts had already secured more wins than they had in 2017. By the end of the year they had finished sixth with six wins, one draw and seven losses. Again management re-signed their starting roster.
"Our key players have driven that [team rebuild] for us," Akle told ESPN. "It is easy to jump ship when you think there's something better on the other side, but for us it was our inner belief that kept us together.
"Those games that we were losing in the last two years were only by less than five goals each time. We stuck at it and open communication to your players is super important. You're with these girls more than you are with your family, so you get to know them extremely well.
"Getting to know them as people and caring for them as people is just as important as knowing them as an athlete and for us we've got a high performance team that have done that beautifully all year."
After two years of rebuilding, season 2019 got off to the perfect start with three dominant opening round wins before they suffered their first defeat at the hands of defending champions the Lightning. They quickly returned to winning ways with four wins on the trot and pushed their way to the top of the table. By midseason it was clear their persistence with their young stars had paid off.
"Keeping this group together has been a bit of an X-factor for us. We knew the potential in them as individuals and as a group, so to have them stick together we knew the potential that was coming and what they could do together.
"I think credit has to go to the girls to say 'we're loyal to this club and we know what we can do' and I think this is the result."
One of the only clubs to not make wholesale changes to their squad over the past two seasons, Akle credits a strong team culture for the rise at the Swifts.
"We've had this slogan all year 'If this was your last game ever, what would it look like', it's something we use on and off the court. So all those old clichés of those one per centers that you do when you're not here, it all matters and we've all bought into that.
"Hard conversations when the going gets tough, we've got quite good at. We've just set up a belief in each other that anything is possible and they live those values every day, so it's fantastic."
Their rise in 2019 hasn't come without it's difficulties though.
In a horror moment during the Swifts win over the Firebirds in Round 7, captain Proud went down hard on her right knee and sustained a season ending ACL injury, before the Netball World Cup break came at exactly the wrong time for the side as they started to build momentum. Injury struck again during the break with Lauren Moore and Kate Eddy both ruled out, while Housby became one of many World Cup casualties and was ruled out for three weeks.
"For us even pre-World Cup we lost our captain Maddy Proud, that was huge loss for us then in that break losing Kate Eddy and Lauren Moore, so that was three of our contracted players out," Akle told ESPN. "We always knew the back-end was going to be a hard slog, and that if we could stick to getting that top two anything would be possible.
"Praise has to go to those girls that have come into our squad week-in and week-out, it's been so unpredictable with what's happening, who's in and who's out, but full credit to our contracted and our training partners that have been with us since November last year and pretty much know our systems.
"It has been a bit rocky post-World Cup but as any team knows, finals netball is a whole new ball game. We're hopefully ready to fire on the weekend."
Despite the loss of Housby, the Swifts player management post-World Cup was impressive. Including Housby, the Swifts had four of their starting seven take part in the two-week event with three playing eight games in 10 days.
While Housby struggled to make a mark during the Swifts semifinal loss to the Lightning on the Sunshine Coast, she stepped up a week later in the Swifts 60-47 dismantling of the Vixens in the preliminary final, before she rectified herself against the Lightning in the Grand Final.
"Helen was obviously one that you don't factor in that you're going to lose for three weeks, but the other thing was managing their mental fatigue. They've just come off playing every single day for two weeks and have come running back into the Super Netball comp, so managing their mental state trying to keep it fresh and fun has been a bit of a task but one thing the girls have been great with.
"The World Cup's driven them, especially for Paige [Hadley] and Sarah [Klau] who lost that gold medal match, they want to win and they want to win for that red dress so their determination has gone through the rest of the team thinking that we can do this."
Faltering slightly in the backend of the season, the Swifts suffered their second loss in the return game against the Lightning before they were shocked by the Magpies in the penultimate round. The eight goal loss in Tasmania proved costly with the Lightning moving past the Swifts to secure top spot on the ladder. But in the end it wouldn't be the Swifts downfall.
In an epic performance from the whole side, the Swifts dominated from the opening whistle with three consecutive goals to open the match and force the Lightning into early changes. While the Lightning always threatened to comeback, the Swifts matched every threat and rose to another level to keep stars Laura Langman, Steph Wood and Karla Pretorius quiet.
Determined to prove themselves as true contenders at the start of the season, the Swifts had finally achieved what they hadn't been able to do with some of their biggest stars in 11 seasons.
"We've had the ingredients for a few years and today was the day we put it all together," captain Proud said following the Grand Final. "Having not come from the Swifts environment, the Swifts were a team you looked up to and feared. "To now recreate that with this new group is very exciting."