Local legend nears 400

Paula Birch with her Under 15 girls Sammi Needham, Alex Norgard, Reagan McKenzie, Charli Burke, Lucy Neaves, Heidi Armstrong, Amber Pallero, Airlie Bennett and Maci Dean. (Louisa Jones) 413117_13

If ever there was the epitome of a humble local sporting champion, then Paula Birch is it.

The surname is synonymous with netball in Ocean Grove and the Shell Road home of the Grubbers is named after her grandfather, Ray Menzies.

A life member of the club in 2011, Birch will play her 400th game next Saturday against Torquay.

First, she needs to get through game number 399 this week and then all eyes will turn to the D Grade game, but to single out Birch’s contribution to the club as just a player would be selling her way short. She has coached the club’s A, B and D Grades as well as the Under 19, 17s, 15s and 13s.

“I’m not sure I can split them, they both hold a special place with me,” Birch said when asked whether playing or coaching had been more rewarding.

“As a player knowing you’ve done the work behind the scenes to take the court with your teammates and work your structures and compete and give it everything is why I play.

“Coaching – juniors especially – is rewarding in a different way, seeing the development and progression from season start to end is always amazing and seeing players try to work things that you’ve asked of them.”

Birch is the current playing coach of the D Grade side and the 15 & Under Division 1 team, which also won a premiership last year under her guidance.

“We went into that game as the underdogs and the girls just went about their work so well, I was so proud of them,” she said.

“Seeing their skill development and game sense at that age is so rewarding. I’ve even been lucky enough to take the court with a couple of those players this year in D Grade as they start their senior netball careers. Weird to think that at that age I hadn’t even played one senior game yet.”

The club has been such a massive part of Birch’s life and vice-versa. Plans are well underway to celebrate the milestone.

“I’m not sure what they’re planning, they’ve kept it pretty hush hush,” she said.

“Being centre of attention isn’t really where I enjoy being so whilst I am appreciative of their acknowledgement hopefully it’s short and sweet and we can get a win on the board. It’s been a huge part of my life since before I was even old enough to play.

“My mum is a life member of the club and hall of famer. Coming down to the old Draper Street courts and climbing the big tree there so I could watch mum coach was the best. It’s in my blood, the Shell Road oval is named after my grandfather (Ray Menzies). I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Birch listed the 2005 B Grade grand final as her most memorable game.

“We went through the season undefeated, it was a draw at full time so we had to play extra time,” she said.

“Right before the final whistle of extra time the umpire paid a penalty shot in our goal circle over halfway out, Tracey Thorley hit the shot after the siren and we won by that goal.”

So is 500 games a possibility?

“I’ve got an overseas trip planned for next year so I think this season is looking like it will probably be my last,” Birch said.

“Everyone I talk to says to keep playing as long as you can, so I’ll never say never, but it’s pretty close to never.”