No boundary for these teens

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Should Universities Women’s Cricket Club take out the Sydney Premier competition Limited Overs and Twenty20 double in the 2019-20 season, they’ll be doing so with possibly the youngest team to ever collect either title. Captained by 18-year-old Olivia Porter, the average age of the Universities First Grade hovers around 19, depending on selection and the availability of representative players.

The squad includes Stella Campbell, Maddy Darke, Rachel Trenaman, Carly Leeson and Olivia Porter. They all have WNCL contracts while Campbell, Darke and Trenaman also play for the Sydney Sixers in the Women’s Big Bash League; Carly represents ACT/NSW Country and Olivia plays for the Thunder.

And there is also 19-year-old all-rounder Zoe Benjamin and two overseas recruits in the ranks: 18-year-olds Bess Heath, an opener and wicketkeeper, and Sophie Munro, a fast bowler, both from the England Transitional squad.

Universities have already won the Sydney Premier competition Twenty20 title and are currently running second to Northen District in the Limited Overs competition for the Ruth Preddy Trophy.

But as all-rounder Benjamin says, the 50-over competition is a tough affair this season, with the top five teams all well in contention.

“It’s a very tight competition and top five positions have been changing by the week,” Zoe says. “Northern District can’t be under-estimated, they’re playing good cricket, but it would be nice to go all the way and claim both titles.”

And it’s the youthfulness of the Universities team that could be the key to achieving that aim.

As Zoe says, many in the squad have been playing together in club and representative teams since they were 11- and 12-year-olds. Most started playing in backyards with brothers and fathers and then in boys’ teams. When they were selected in state Under 15 and Under 18 girls’ teams some were three and four years under the age limit.

And when they arrived at Universities Brewer Shield (Under 18) side in 2012-13, it was no surprise that they went on to win the title in the 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. By then many had earned First Grade selection and they duly went on to win the 2015-16 Ruth Preddy Trophy.

It was timely arrival for the group. They had the benefit of playing under some wonderful senior players, including former Australian captains Alex Blackwell and Lisa Sthalekar, Georgia Redmayne, Molly Gibson and Erica James.

Zoe is typical of many of the girls in the present Universities squad. Her dad was a cricketer and he played in the backyard with Zoe and her brother.

“I had a fantastic teacher in Year 6 at school who encouraged me to try out with the boys’ teams,” she said. “I met Maddy Darke at the PSSA (Public Schools Sports Association) tournament when we were 11. Kate Owen (a former Universities captain and Australian Under 23 representative) was the coach. I then joined an all girls’ team at Miranda.

“Most of us started playing together in junior representative sides and then progressed to the Brewer Shield. But we were playing Brewer Shield as 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. Everyone moved up through the grades.

“Coming from the Shire, via Sylvania High School, I had a first taste of Brewer Shield with the St George club – against Universities – and against all of my friends. I switched to Universities when I was 13 and I’m now in my seventh season with the club.”

It’s a similar story for most of the others. When Olivia Porter started playing club cricket at the age of 10, she had no alternative but to join the boys’ team. Porter said the lack of women’s cricket in her youth made her the player she is today. She played with the Ryde Hunters Hill Pirates Cricket Club in the boys’ team from the ages of 10 to 14.

Since linking up with Universities in the 2013-14 season, when she made her Brewer Shield debut, Porter has played 99 games for the club. She’s edging towards 2000 runs in all formats at a healthy 31.03 average.

Stella Campbell is a 17-year-old right-arm fast bowler in the Australian Under 19 team. As a 15-year-old she toured South Africa with the Under 19s for a tri-series against England and the host nation in 2018. Claiming nine wickets at 17.11 in the series, including 3-28 from 6.5 overs to rout England in a memorable debut.

Rachel Trenaman, from Wagga Wagga, scored 122 against the hosts and 91 against England on the tour. As a 12-year-old she represented NSW and School Sport Australia and in the Under 15 National Championships. And as a 15-year-old she represented in the Under 18s at the national championships.

Maddy Darke, 18, a wicketkeeper/batter with the Australian Under 19s found her way into cricket when she was seven. She played soccer in the winter and when summer arrived, she followed her teammates – all boys – to Easts Cricket Club and soon found a love for ‘keeping. “I just like being in the action,” she said.

Carly Leeson, 21, a right-arm medium pacer and right-hand batter, had a stellar junior career in NSW representing the state in Under 15s and Under 18s and was a member of the Shooting Stars squad when they toured Sri Lanka in 2015.

Club coach Tim Carter, who has just finished a three-year stint with Samoan Cricket, is impressed with the talent in Universities ranks. “They’re not just young cricketers, they’re talented players,” he said. “There are different opportunities for work, study and life for the young players these days.

“In keeping with that, the club has had a change of structure and approach around playing and recruitment. Cricket NSW allows each club to field two overseas players, and they now have a Pathways Program for both boys and girls. We have a number of players progressing through the program.’’

As Zoe Benjamin muses: “It would be nice to win the Sydney Premier competition double. Because we’ve been together for a number of years and had success we’re experienced in finals and we know how to win.”

They’re ominous words.