Sunshine Girls instilling self-belief into gold-medal dream
Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
The jubilation erupting after Jamaica's victory over England in the recent netball series proved revenge can be truly sweet.
The Sunshine Girls, victims of a whipping last time the Roses bloomed in Jamaica, burst into unbridled celebration after sealing the 2-1 margin. Players hugged and pranced. Fans swarmed the National Indoor Sports Centre (NISC) floor.
Yet, in the aftermath, Jamaica's focus was already on a bigger prize.
"This is a major stepping stone for us," said shooter Romelda Aiken following the series clincher. "Our dream is to win the Netball World Cup (NWC)."
Since 1963, that's been a nightmare. Jamaica has battled but failed to capture the official world championship held every four years. Global titles, which also include Commonwealth Games and 'Fast5' tournaments, have also eluded the Sunshine Girls.
Jamaica, despite the odd victory, has consistently played bridesmaid to Australia and New Zealand, the only two outright winners of the World Championship with nine and three titles, respectively. They also shared, with Trinidad and Tobago, the other title in 1979.
Outstanding efforts earned Jamaica third-place World finishes in 1991, 2003 and 2007, plus bronze medals at the 2002 and 2014 Commonwealth Games, and silver in the "Fast5" format in 2009, added to bronze in 2010 and 2013. Opponents respect the Girls' game.
"Jamaica can play with any team," said England coach Anna Mayes. "... Jamaica has to play their style - flamboyant and athletic. They shouldn't change their style to face anyone."
Yet that style hasn't netted a global title. Observers admit the championship drought has little to do with Jamaica's ability to outrun or jump higher than rivals.
Problems off court have stymied growth on it. Topping the list is money - or lack of it - which administrators claim limits exposure to proper facilities and competition. So the team wins the nation's pride, but loses the battle of belief.
"I always think that's what's lacking," said Jamaica's coach Minneth Reynolds. "They have the skills to beat any team in the world. Belief and execution, they have to come together."
According to Netball Jamaica President Marva Bernard, the solution is getting competitive warm-up games before tournaments.
"We go there with less match practice than the other big teams," said Bernard. "Competition is the heart of spirit. So if you can't compete, your game will not lift."
"Australia and New Zealand play against themselves a lot," Mayes added. "It's the opportunities to play against number one and number two that Jamaica and England need."
That's "extremely expensive," explained Bernard. Visiting teams find their own airfare. But accommodation, transport, practice and game facilities are usually the host's tab. Bernard said it would cost over $4 million for Jamaica to play in Australia. Even with sponsorship, top teams may not be available.
Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand produce battle-hardened professional players at home. Several England internationals play there too, but only two Jamaicans. The other Girls train mostly outdoors at home, more susceptible to injuries, because it costs $37,500 per hour to use the NISC, according to Bernard.
Jamaica is also restricted to occasional practice matches against males to simulate tougher opposition. It's not enough.
"We will not be as good as any team if we play the boys alone," said Bernard.
Yet heading into NWC 2015 this August, the race to catch host Australia and New Zealand is tightening.
"It's not just about those two anymore," Mayes said.
Bolstering focus, Aiken knows, will be key, especially in close games.
"For us, we have to work on our concentration," she said.
Reynolds sees doubt steadily eroding.
"In the past the players would talk about (belief), but didn't put it on the court," she said. "Now they're putting it on the court ... We want to do it more consistently."
"It's changing," said Bernard. "The more you win, the more self-belief."
Jamaica is also more knowledgeable of opponents. England didn't handle the Girls' physical play.
"We were aggressive," Aiken explained after the series win. "They seemed to back down from us a bit."
There's more to come.
"Playing with Australia and New Zealand you can't stand there and take the hit," said Aiken, who, along with fellow shooter Jhaniele Fowler, has played professionally in both countries. "... We're not going to change the way we play."
Armed with that blueprint, Jamaica head to Australia to try - again - to win a World Championship. Self-doubt, pillar of futility for decades, is being replaced with confidence.
"We're not daunted," said Reynolds.