Cockburn Cougars captain Kirsty Whitfield can’t speak more highly of the bond she has with this history-making team of 2023 nor for the support they receive from the Cougar Family, and she hopes they can all celebrate after Friday night’s NBL1 West Grand Final.
It has been quite the ride for Whitfield over the past 15 years going back to when she made her SBL debut in 2008 as a 16-year-old.
Along the way, she has got married to Tom, they have had two children together and earlier this season she cemented her place in Cougars history as a life member by becoming a 200-game player.
She now has already made history as the captain of a first Cockburn women’s team to claim a regular season title and to finish with the club’s best ever record of 18-2 to do that.
Whitfield will now be the first Cougars captain to lead a team into an SBL/NBL1 women’s Grand Final this Friday night when they take on local rivals the Willetton Tigers, and she’s not afraid to dream of the fairytale that would be to lift up the trophy at Bendat Basketball Centre.
Feelings now to be in a Grand Final
While Whitfield has always had confidence of what this Cougars team of 2023 was capable of, to actually have made it to a Grand Final now and to have the chance to win the first championship and make the National Finals is still a pinch yourself moment.
However, what she is doing is making sure she embraces everything about the occasion now that she has got to be part of a Grand Final for the first time.
“It’s pretty surreal, it’s very exciting and I think I’m just really looking forward to getting out there and absorbing the atmosphere, and absorbing what it is to be there in a finals game in finals week. We’ve obviously never done it before so it’s surreal and very exciting to be there,” she said.
“I’m definitely feeling excited now for Friday night and am thinking about it. I spoke to Grant Davey who was the championship captain in 2012 and he told me to make sure I enjoy the week because you don’t know if you will ever get another chance. It was really nice for him to say to just absorb it, enjoy it, have fun and I’ve been doing that. I haven’t been nervous, I’ve just been really excited.”
Realising what you had actually achieved
It was late in Saturday night’s preliminary final against the Magic at Wally Hagan Stadium that the reality sunk in for Whitfield that the Grand Final dream had happened and that the Cougars had made it to the decider.
That was quite the emotional realisation when the result was beyond doubt but it is something she’s allowed herself to think was possible over the past couple of years.
“It was at that three-minute that I felt like we had really done it,” Whitfield said.
“That was a pretty emotional moment and I was in a bit of disbelief, but in the whole game I did feel confident we were going to win. But it was then at that three-minute mark that I felt like we definitely have got this in the bag.
“I think as I’ve gotten older I’ve been thinking that it would be possible and last year I had really high hopes. I thought that was going to be the year we could get to a Grand Final and then coming into this year with our recruitment, and then the way we started, I definitely felt like it was going to be the year.”
Support of the Cougar Family
Not only has the Cougars team been delivering outstanding basketball this season to make history, but the support they’ve received from their family, friends and the wider Cockburn community has been enormous.
That saw both finals at Wally Hagan Stadium against Rockingham and Mandurah sell out quickly and now this Friday night’s Grand Final at Bendat Basketball Centre is already the first women’s decider to sell out for a long time.
Whitfield couldn’t be more grateful to all the support her team continues to receive.
“It would be pretty cool to have our game sold out and to be the first women’s Grand Final to do that,” she said.
“I think that women’s sport in general has been getting lots of traction in a whole range of sports so it would be pretty exciting to have our Grand Final sold out now too.
“To have our stadium sold out within about 10 minutes has been incredible. We have such great family and friends that support us but also our wider Cougar Family and community.
“Their support has been unreal and the atmosphere they’ve created at games and just the excitement around the club has absolutely contributed to the way we’ve played, and the way that we hold ourselves. I can’t be more thankful for all the support we’ve received.”
What makes this Cougars team so special
It goes without saying given no other Cougars team has finished on a record as good as 18-2 before or reached a Grand Final that this is the best outfit that Whitfield has been part of in a career spanning 215 games that started back in 2008.
She has been the glue that’s helped pull it together as that outstanding leader, but she can’t speak more of her teammates with Sarah Mortensen runner-up MVP and named to the All-First Team.
Then there’s Steph Gorman who was named Best Defensive Player and has signed with the Perth Lynx in the WNBL while Jessie Edwards has been terrific inside, Jewel Williams has run the point brilliantly and Patty Brossmann had no problems fitting in mid-season.
“We have some really amazing talent in the group and it’s really exciting to be able to play alongside them, and with them,” Whitfield said.
“We have obviously Sarah Mortensen who has just been elite all year and we’ve got Steph Gorman who is the Defensive Player of the Year. She is so fun to watch and is a great girl to have in the team.
“We obviously have Jewel and Jessie who have been with us consistently for the past couple of years now so it’s nice to know how important of a role they play on our team. We have certain expectations of them and they reach them every game. Then to bring Patty in who is strong and pulls down rebounds is really cool too.”
It’s one thing to have that much talent, but the genuine care and love the Cougars players have for one another is the reason things have gone so well too according to Whitfield.
“They’re not only just great teammates, but we’re all good friends too and we do have a really beautiful culture in the NBL1 program at Cockburn,” she said.
“All the girls love each other, we try so hard for each other and it’s never been an individual game for us. It’s always been about finding the best path for our teammates.
“I think that goes to show with the way we play and we have such trust in each other defensively and offensively. It’s a pretty special to have as a team on and off the court.”
The bond that this Cougars playing group has with one another is obvious to see any of their interactions or to listen to them talking about their genuine love and care of each other.
You don’t always get that on talented teams with players coming from different backgrounds, who are at different points in their career and have their own individual ambitions.
However, whether it’s a captain like Whitfield, experienced locals Edwards or Williams, professionals like Mortensen, Brossmann and Gorman, or the teenage excitement machines Amelia Corasaniti and Kinley Paterson, it all just seems to work.
“It does seem to work and I think it’s because there’s lots of respect from no matter who you are in the team whether you’re a starter, a bench player, an uncontracted or contracted player within our program,” Whitfield said.
“Everyone’s respected and everyone has a lot of time for one another, and we’re just a bunch of good friends, so it’s really nice that we’ve been able to develop that culture.”
Future beyond this season
Initially when the 2023 season started and Whitfield was sure that this would be her swansong no matter how it turned out.
The dream was to retire as a first ever championship winning captain with the Cougars, but either way, she did feel that because of the commitments required to play NBL1, it just had to be her last season.
However, with a life where her and husband Tom have two children together, are going through house renovations and have everything else to try and juggle, it’s full on to throw in the commitments of being the captain of an NBL1 team.
That’s why she was sure it would be her last season, but now she doesn’t want to think about it, and will let the 2023 season settle before making that final call.
“My focus is just on the now and focusing on the playing group, and our game ahead on Friday. I just want to win that and all my focus is on that, and on the girls,” Whitfield said.
“At the end of the day, it’s not about me and my future, but about the culture within the playing group and how far we can go. I just hope we can take home the title and that will make me the happiest person on earth.”
The thing that has helped Whitfield enjoy everything about this season is because she feels the weight was lifted off her shoulders when she did make it known in all likelihood it would be her last season.
And right now with the way her hectic life is leaving her exhausted and her body could use a break, it’s easy to think her career will either finish after Friday night’s Grand Final, or after next week’s National Finals should the Cougars prevail.
However, the reality of not playing for the Cougars again is also something she’s not quite ready to lock in stone.
“It’s such a hard one for me because I love it but it’s such a huge commitment and you have to give it so much time,” Whitfield said.
“I’m so indecisive and in general I am the most indecisive person you’ll meet, and that’s even more so for a big decision like this.
“I just don’t know and right now at the end of the season when you’re so tired with so much going on, it’s easy to say this is definitely my last year and it would be awesome to finish on top like this.
“But then I’m also just not sure if I’m ready to walk away once it’s all done and dusted, so I won’t make any decisions just yet. Although it was nice to make the call that I did at the beginning of the season so I could take everything in this year and then now that I’m here at the end, it’s been a really fun season and has taken the pressure off me.”
Grand final is so close now, how are you feeling
Whitfield has dreamed of what it would be like to prepare for a Grand Final since starting her career back in 2008, but now that it’s here she is making sure to embrace everything about the week leading up to Friday night.
“I haven’t thought about that side of it too much, but now that you’ve brought it up, I just keep smiling and I’m pretty excited about it all,” Whitfield said.
“It’s going to be a really exciting game and Willetton have been there before so they know what it’s all about, but it’s new for us. It’s going to be really exciting and I’m looking forward to how we absorb it all, take on the pressure and hopefully we can execute our scout and put on a really good performance for everyone.”