Kirsty Whitfield never imagined when she started playing at the Cockburn Cougars she’d one day be up on the Wally Hagan Stadium wall. She thought it was even more unlikely after having two children, but she achieves that this Friday night and isn’t afraid to dream of a perfect ending.
Whitfield came into the 2023 NBL1 West season always knowing that it would be the last of her career with the Cougars that started in 2008 when she was just a 16-year-old.
She never had in mind that she wanted to come back for one final season to reach 200 games, but that’s a more than handy bonus for the Cougars captain to reach the milestone this Friday night which will see her earn life membership and have her photo up for prosperity at Wally Hagan Stadium.
Not only that, but Whitfield is the captain of the last remaining unbeaten team in the NBL1 West women’s competition. History tells her you can’t get ahead of yourself, but she isn’t afraid to dream of what a fairytale finish would feel like.
The Cougars women are yet to win a championship, or to reach a Grand Final, but right now with a 5-0 record, this could be their best chance. While Whitfield is fully aware of how much lies ahead of them, she’s starting to see this might be their best chance.
“I think I’d be crazy not to think that we could make it all the way this year so I do think I find myself wondering what it would feel like if I walk out onto the court one last time and it’s in that championship game,” Whitfield said.
“It would be a great story to tell and I hope it’s a story I get to tell, there’s no reason not to dream about what you would like to happen.”
REACHING THE 200-GAME MILESTONE
Whitfield will play her 200th game for the Cougars this Friday night at Wally Hagan Stadium against the South West Slammers.
It’s a career that began when she was still Kirsty Pitcher back in 2008 and so much of the first part of her career saw her get to play alongside sister Nicole.
Now this second part of her career sees her playing as a wife to Tom and mother to their two young children, but she is in her second season as captain and continues to be a strong contributor in a starting role on a team yet to lose in 2023.
To be preparing for her 200-game milestone this Friday night to earn life membership of the Cougars means the world to her.
“It sure will feel special to get there. I do want to say that I didn’t come back for this season to get to 200 games and to get on the wall, that wasn’t part of my decision at all in returning,” Whitfield said.
“It just turns out that I’m lucky enough to hit that milestone while I’m in this last season and it was a nice bonus that Tyrone could throw at me when he asked me to come back for one more year.
“I think it’s going to feel quite surreal when I walk into the stadium and see myself up on that wall, but it’s something that super special. I’m really proud of myself and I think it’s something that my kids will hopefully look up at and be proud of their mum too. Maybe it will push them to do something similar too, you never know.”
RETURNING AFTER BECOMING A MUM
Whitfield wasn’t quite sure if she would return after having her second child, but at the same time she will always be forever grateful that she has done so for these last two seasons of her career for a whole host of reasons.
“I guess having kids kind of changes your life for a while and everything gets put on hold and you just put your total focus into being a mum especially over those first three, four or five months,” she said.
“It really does take a toll on you and the person that you are, but I’m so grateful that I had some coaching staff when I reached out that I was ready to get my body moving again that they were happy to have me back.
“That gave me the opportunity to remember who I was prior to having kids but then also really love them even more when I had that bit of time away from them and came back home to them.
“I wouldn’t say it was that hard physically to be able to return, but mentally and emotionally perhaps it was a bit harder. Now having gone back though, I wouldn’t have done it any other way and I think it’s super important to look after your mental health well-being, but also your physical health as well.”
Now being able to share her life as a basketball player with her two children, and doing it with the support of her husband, parents and sister is something that Whitfield is proud she pushed herself to do, and will always cherish.
“It’s great and the excitement of mum being on the court or going to play games or to go to training, and talking about going to watch mum is really exciting,” Whitfield said.
“They love it and it might only last for five minutes and then I can hear them in the crowd climbing up and down the stairs or running amok, but it’s amazing having them there.
“And I think maybe as they get older it will mean more as well just having understood that’s what mummy was doing when they were little. It’s pretty special to having them out there and having the support of my husband as well, he couldn’t have been more supportive about me returning to play.
“Having my parents and sister there too to help out with the kids too, I just couldn’t do it without them.”
SPENDING SO MUCH OF CAREER PLAYING WITH SISTER
While Whitfield started her then SBL career back in 2008 at the Cougars, she was joined in the team by sister Nicole in 2012 and the pair continued to play together up until the end of 2019.
Nicole went on to play 116 games with the Cougars as well and for Kirsty, sharing that with her sister is something that will always be among her life’s best memories.
“It was super special and I don’t think many people can say that they’ve been able to play alongside their sister for as long as we did at the level that we played at,” she said.
“I only wish it did go for a bit longer and I tried to bring her back for this last season, but it was a little bit too much for her. But that’s always going to be something that was special for us and she’s one of my best friends. I’m so grateful that I was able to share that extra time with her on the floor.”
BEING PART OF THE COUGAR FAMILY
Beyond her actual family and for Whitfield to be part of the Cougar Family is about much more than just the club’s tagline.
It is the reality and while she has enjoyed sharing her basketball journey with her sister, parents and now husband and children, it’s those who might be officially related, but that she’s bonded to with the Cougars that mean so much to her as well.
That’s a big part of why Friday night’s milestone game will mean so much too.
“It’s super special and they really do push community and family being an important part of the club, and that’s a value of mine personally and also the club,” Whitfield said.
“It also shows that they are supportive of having me back even though I’ve got my own family now, and they were so supportive of me coming down with young kids. You do see a lot of family around and even if they’re not your real blood family, they feel like family anyway because of the bond that you share.
“I’ve made some amazing friendships and relationships down at that club, and a lot of my friends are those that I’ve played basketball with who were then there at my wedding, baby showers and things like that so it’s a special feeling to be part of the club.”
COMING FULL CIRCLE IN CAREER
Looking back to the start of her career in the SBL at the Cougars and Whitfield had some incredible role models to look up to at the club including Fleur McIntyre and Vanessa Cahill.
To now think she is that veteran leader setting the example for the stars of the future at the Cougars like Harriet Ford, Amelia Corasaniti, Ella Summers and Kinley Paterson is something that is a little surreal still for her, but it’s that role as a captain that she knows how important it is.
“I really didn’t realise it’s been 15 years and that’s obviously a long time. I was just a baby when I first started and I remember when one of the coaches at the time, Blair Kearsley, saying that I should just come down to SBL training,” Whitfield said.
“To be honest at that point I had no idea what SBL training was but it was Nic and Alyce Roberts who talked me into coming down. I didn’t have a license obviously by that stage, but the twins would pick me up and drop me off after training, and back then I was just a rookie and happy to go along for the ride.
“I could learn from some amazing leaders like Fleur McIntyre and Vanessa Cahill, and now to think all these years later I’m that leader for some of the young kids that are there now is pretty spectacular.”
Beyond that and reaching her 200-game milestone is a good chance for Whitfield to reflect on how far things have come over the past 15 years, both in terms of the growth of the Cougars and the NBL1 West competition, but also the greater respect and shown to the women’s game.
“I think just generally the club has grown so much and there’s so much more publicity and marketing from the whole NBL1 competition, but also just for the women’s games,” she said.
“There’d be games when I was a rookie and there wouldn’t be a lot of attention or focus on the women’s game, and when we started there wouldn’t be many people there watching.
“Then they would rock up for the men’s game, but now they are there for our warm up all the way through and I think that’s a testament to Tyrone and everyone else behind the scenes for bringing so much to the game but also the women’s game in particular at Cockburn.
“So over 15 years a lot has changed but there’s still a lot of the same people you keep seeing down there which is pretty remarkable.”
COACHING AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE
Whitfield has become such a natural and inspirational leader at the Cougars for these last two years of her career that she is almost like a playing assistant coach for Tyrone Thwaites out on the floor.
She has all the characteristics that would make her an outstanding coach one day, and while she wouldn’t mind going down that path, it won’t be immediately once she stops playing.
“I guess it’s something I might consider at one point but probably not any time in the near future with young children,” Whitfield said.
“But I do like the leadership and strategy side of the game, and looking at our opponents and those sort of things. So there is the potential there one day and I don’t know about a head coach, but I might like to get involved one day down the track.”