With one point separating the top two, the NPLWA – Women’s competition is primed for a thrilling final month.
Murdoch University Melville have the opportunity to reclaim top spot and put the pressure on leaders Northern Redbacks when they face Perth SC on Friday night.
But Carlos Vega Mena’s Redbacks side have lost only once in the league in 2021, albeit to this weekend’s opponents Balcatta, and maximum points on Sunday will ensure they head into the final four rounds of matches in front of their rivals.
Victory will also be the perfect way to celebrate a milestone in Sunday’s clash at Celebration Park, with Renee Leota in line to become the fifth Redbacks player to make 200 appearances for the club.
Forward Leota, who is set to follow former Perth Glory women’s head coach Nicola Williams and current players Carla Bennett, Emily Dunn and Larissa Walsh in reaching the mark, has largely played the role of super-sub in 2021. However, she has been influential when called upon throughout the team’s title push.
“It’s always nice to start, of course, but I’ve had some little niggles, so coming on as an impact player and feeling I can do that well is something I’m fine with,” Leota said.
“That’s my role in the team to do my job in the minutes I get and I’m happy to get on and do what’s best to help the team win.
“We’re pretty happy (with the season), but we’re taking each game as it comes because they’re all tough from now on. Balcatta got the win against us last time and always seem to step it up against us, so we need to play our game, trust in our strengths and be ready from the first whistle.
“Last season was pretty disappointing for a lot of us senior players, so we’re wanting to do all we can this year, especially us core group of girls in that older age bracket who just want to do it for Redbacks.”
Leota joined Redbacks in 2012 after spending her late teens and early 20s as part of the New Zealand Football Ferns set-up.
Football wasn’t the only sport she was good at. Leota was a dual-international in basketball too, where she played for various New Zealand age groups at Wellington Basketball, and was shooting hoops concurrently in the same gym as Memphis Grizzlies NBA center Steven Adams.
“It came to a point where I had to put one before the other, just in terms of other commitments such as school, and I ended up choosing football because it was taking me to more places at that time,” she said.
“But I do miss basketball and I’ve socially tried to join in, shoot some hoops when I can, and I adore the sport.
“I was involved in the Football Ferns from a young age in the soccer scene and it surprised me a little. I had to relocate quite early, living up there on my own (in Auckland) because that’s where we trained and needed to be.
“It was quite hard. I guess because I was young and played three U20s World Cups, I got to the point where I’d done so much so early that I needed to put my studies first and think about what I wanted to do long-term. Because it does take it out of you being involved so heavily for that long physically and mentally.”
In the late 2000s, Leota’s football journey took her to Germany, Chile and Russia for U20s World Cups, among other cities for training camps and friendlies. but the memories of being part of the Football Ferns 2008 Beijing Olympics squad remains a highlight.
“I basically filled up my passport throughout the later years of my teens, travelling with the team,” she said.
“I’d just turned 18 and it’s so long ago now. I was just in the mentality where I felt so fortunate to be a member of that team at the time. I didn’t necessarily take it for granted, but I just thought, ‘wow, I’m actually at the Olympics’.
“We would go down to breakfast or walk around the Olympic village, and you’d see a few of the stars you’d seen on TV. And once you’re there, it was all done so quickly, given we went out after the group games.
“I’d have a different perspective on it now, but I am very grateful it happened and I guess that was just the age I was meant to experience it. There’s still a lot of the girls involved then, who are still in the team today, so it’s cool to see them still there.”
The New Zealand International then relocated to Australia and acknowledged the role Redbacks have played throughout her time in Perth.
“I joined Redbacks, having moved to Australia by myself and immediately the club became my family,” she said.
“They’re the people I know and I couldn’t imagine playing for another club. I was unsure whether I’d stay at first, but I quite like life here and here I am, still here in 2021.”
Elsewhere in Round 17, MUM FC face Perth SC for the second time in little over a week. The reigning league champions won 2-0 in their rearranged Round Three encounter, the first of back-to-back losses for Danielle Brogan’s side which have seen them drop to fifth.
In Friday’s other game, Fremantle City will try to break a three-game losing streak which leaves them just three points clear of Perth in fifth. They host Hyundai NTC, who need a win to close the widening gap between them and the finals places, particularly with catch-up games mounting from recent postponements.
The weekend’s final fixture pits Subiaco, fresh off their maiden NPLW win, against a Curtin side who have lost their last two games heavily.
Fremantle City v Hyundai NTC (Wauhop Park)
MUM FC v Perth SC (7.30pm)
Northern Redbacks v Balcatta
Curtin University v Subiaco
Image: Rob Lizzi