6 October 2023

From rivals to teammates: Illawarra hockey stars 'roaring' to go and ready to claim national glory

| Keeli Royle
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Callum Mackay passing ball in hockey training session at Homebush.

The Illawarra boasts 10 players across this year’s NSW Pride teams competing in the Hockey One league. Photo: Keeli Royle.

Illawarra is proving to be the springboard for the next generation of hockey stars with players from the local area dominating NSW Pride teams in the upcoming national league but both the men’s and women’s sides still have challenges to overcome as they fight to secure back-to-back championships.

Just weeks after bitter rivalries between clubs were on full display in the Illawarra, local players are putting their differences aside to join forces for one of the sport’s most elite domestic competitions.

Wests Illawarra Hockey Club’s Thomas Miotto and Albion Park Hockey Club’s Nathan Ackroyd were amongst this year’s Pride players that have just gone head-to-head in the Illawarra grand final but despite the fierce competitiveness on the field, they said there’s no conflict once the whistle blows.

“Once the game finishes it all just settles down and it’s all done with,” Thomas said. While we’re out there it sometimes gets a bit heated but it’s all alright.”

“I’ve played with these boys for the past five or six years now so we’ve had plenty of practice and we’re not too bad about it.”

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“It’s sort of always been like that, we have that rivalry when we play against each other down home but as soon as we go away for rep or anything else we’re all pretty good mates,” Nathan said.

University of Wollongong Hockey Club’s Callum Mackay said that it takes a special group of players to do what they do.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re usually against or with them, if you’re in the same colours we’re all together,” he said.

“When you’re playing against them, you still want to beat them, there’s no week that you come out and go ‘I like this person so much I’m going to let them win’, but if we come together and grow together and when they’re wearing the same shirt as you, no questions are asked, you know that they’ve got your back and you’ve got their back out there.”

Illawarra Men's Open Team

NSW Pride players Nathan Ackroyd, Jack Hayes, Callum Mackay and Thomas Miotto all were part of the winning Illawarra Open Men’s side earlier this year. Photo: Click InFocus.

Men’s Pride coach Brent Livermore said that teamwork was critical for the team’s success as they go for their third win.

“As we come together the important thing is for everyone to understand their roles within the team, the types of players that they are within this team and it might be different from their club team,” Brent said.

“They might be the superstars, they might be the gamechangers, they might be the players that actually do everything for their team but they come here and they’ve got to understand their roles and take a step back.”

But they’ll have to overcome some physical barriers, with Australian players like Flynn Ogilvie and Blake Govers still on the other side of the country.

“We’ve only seen about 50 per cent of our squad to date and I think at this stage we’re looking at bringing the group together I think I meet them on the Saturday morning before our first match against Brisbane Blaze.”

With 10 players across the two teams from the Illawarra and coming from five different clubs, the local facilities and competition have made the region a breeding ground for upcoming talent.

“Without a doubt, the Illawarra has been a fantastic development pathway program and breeding ground for both men’s and women’s athletes in hockey,” Brent said.

“They’ve had a lot of success and it comes down to probably the Illawarra Academy of Sport, the Illawarra Hockey Association, the universities and their buy-in within the community and I think even just the Illawarra indoor competition is a catalyst towards what builds and develops the passionate hockey player that always has their stick in their hand looking to grow.”

Albion Park’s Maddi Smith said that growing up competing against other strong players locally helped increase the quality of players coming from the area.

“I remember playing a lot of games against some of the boys in the Pride team so we had really good juniors,” she said. “And access to good turf, a lot of people can’t believe I’ve never played on a grass turf and that’s just because we’ve had such good turfs out in the Illawarra.”

“I think it’s just great sporting facilities and people that have played in high level always give back to our community which is great.”

“I think we’ve also had pretty decent coaches from a junior age,” Nathan said. “And had a lot of strong representative players been around that younger kids look up to so it constantly builds from there.”

Albion Park and Wests Hockey Players in 2023 Grand Final.

Albion Park Hockey Club beat Wests Illawarra to claim the 2023 ISCH Premiership. Photo: Keeli Royle.

Thomas said the association ensured that representative opportunities were accessible to people at different levels to give them a chance to play at that higher level.

“They would push us and send three teams away to a state champs,” he said. “When I first started I was 12 … and that was my first experience of playing any kind of rep hockey and I loved it.”

The Hockey One League will give even more people a chance to access the sport with matches right around the country and also being streamed through the Seven Network.

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And as the ones to beat, the pressure is on for NSW Pride, with other states recruiting quality players from all around, like former Kookaburra Kieran Govers who will take the field for the Adelaide Fire.

“I think across the roster, across all the states through imports from other states and across the world that the level’s just going to go higher and higher,” Callum said.

“There’s going to be no easy games throughout the year and there’s definitely going to be that target on our heads.”

NSW Pride’s Hockey One campaign will kick off on 14 October.

For more information or to buy tickets visit the Hockey One website.

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