From 15/U to ANL: The 16-year-old behind NSW’s finals tilt

Nine months ago, Matisse Letherbarrow was playing local 15/U rep netball with her mates in suburban Sydney.

On Saturday, she’ll be the lynchpin in the NSW Waratahs’ Deakin University Australian Netball League finals tilt when they line up against the Tasmanian Magpies in Canberra.

It’s been a staggering and almost unprecedented rise for the laid-back teen, who sits fourth on the ANL goalshooting table with 292 goals from 330 attempts, despite having missed four of the team’s 14 games with Australian Schoolgirls team commitments.

It can be something of a lottery exposing a young talent to such an elite level of competition, but the 16-year-old has made the NSW goal shooter bib her own after being taken as a future prospect in this year’s Waratahs team.

Getting her first taste of ANL action when she came on at half-time against eventual minor premiers Victorian Fury in Round 1, her 15 goals saw her earn a start in their return clash between the two sides the following day. Playing on Margaret Court Arena on the Sunday and lining up on Melbourne Vixen Kadie-Ann Dehaney for two of the four quarters, she duly drained 36 goals from 39 attempts to lead the Waratahs to a 58-50 victory – the Fury’s only loss throughout their home and away campaign.

You might have expected a teenager to be slightly overawed by the occasion, particularly considering she had NSW Swifts Sophie Garbin, Kate Eddy and Claire O’Brien on court with her, but that’s just not in Letherbarrow’s DNA.

“There were a few butterflies before the game but once I step on the court, being on with all the other girls it just makes me feel really happy and really excited,” she says.

“I feel so comfortable on the court that my nerves kind of go away straight away, because I just know that it’ll all be fine and everyone has each other’s backs.”

“It was my first proper round of ANL and my first full game. Just to be able to play on Margaret Court Arena was such a good experience, and to also play with some Swifties too,” she says.

“It kind of helped to get my nerves out and get a feel for what it was all about. The Swifts dropped back on that day and to play with Sophie Garbin was such an amazing experience. I kind of thought to myself, ‘I’m just going to go on and play my game and have fun, and just not really hold back with anything’.”

To describe Letherbarrow’s first half of 2018 as a whirlwind would be a wild understatement. She led the NSW 17/U team at the National Championships, topping the competition’s goalscoring with 183 goals at 88% accuracy, and then stepped straight into ANL commitments with the Waratahs.

“It’s been crazy. Obviously getting an opportunity to play in ANL is something I’ve dreamed of and I definitely wasn’t expecting it to happen this year,” she says.

“I pretty much came out of 15 (and under) rep last year, and then I did all my trialing for state in October, and then I got asked to trial for the Waratahs and that all happened from October to December. Fortunately I got picked in the state team and the Waratahs team, so I’ve pretty much gone from 15 rep to state and now the Waratahs.

“It was pretty intimidating coming into the (Waratahs) team because I admire every single one of them and every one of them have had really good netball careers themselves.”

Having finished second on the ANL ladder, this weekend Letherbarrow and her Waratahs teammates will take on the third-placed Tasmanian Magpies in a knockout semi-final on Saturday, with a potential grand final looming on the Sunday if they win through.

 

Letherbarrow says she doesn’t worry about her opponents’ experience or reputation, which is probably a good thing, considering every single player in the competition has more of both than she does.

“I don’t really think about the person I’m playing or how much experience they’ve had or how good they are. I just go on and think of them as another person. You don’t want to go onto the court intimidated or anything,” she says.

Collingwood training partner Mary Livesay will likely be tasked with trying to shut Letherbarrow down on Saturday, along with fellow Magpie, Sharni Lambden, who could also line up in the Tasmanian defensive circle.

“I didn’t play against Tassie Magpies (in Round 4) because I was away at Aussie Schoolgirls. Obviously they’re a good team and have some great players, but as a team we’re more focused on what we can do and what we can achieve. With the way we played against Vic Fury and the way we played against Canberra GIANTS, if we can keep building on that and bring it into the finals, I think we’ve definitely got a really good shot of getting into the grand final.”

At 185cm tall, Letherbarrow is by no means a giant among the competition’s goal shooters and cops her fair share of hits as opposition defenders try to find a way inside her head. But she says her strengths lie in her ability to ignore the physical attention she’s receiving, and simply enjoy the game.

“I’m the type of person that I focus so much on the game and what I have to do in the game, that copping hits and stuff comes with it but I don’t get phased by it. You feel the pain more after the game. Getting hit doesn’t really phase me.

“I think maybe my biggest strength is that I back myself. I like to go on the court and, in a way, prove others wrong. A lot of people look at me go, ‘Oh my god, she’s 16’, and for a lot of people I think age does come into it, but I just try to go on court, back myself to shoot those long shots and do those things that people wouldn’t normally do.”

The Deakin University Australian Netball League finals will be broadcast LIVE on Netball Australia’s Facebook page on Saturday, 30 June at 3pm and 5pm (semi-finals), and Sunday, 1 July at 12.30pm AEST (grand final).