Koroit recruit Jess O'Connor wins Hampden open grade netball best and fairest

STAR SAINT: Jess O'Connor, who returned to Koroit this season, won the Hampden open grade netball best and fairest award. Picture: Rob Gunstone
STAR SAINT: Jess O'Connor, who returned to Koroit this season, won the Hampden open grade netball best and fairest award. Picture: Rob Gunstone

JESS O’Connor didn’t expect to be learning a new role at this stage of her career.

But the Koroit recruit embraced the chance to move up to goal defence from keeper, a switch which saw her crowned the 2017 Hampden open grade netball best and fairest player on Sunday.

After a season off as her young family travelled Australia for 10-and-a-half months, former Terang Mortlake Blood O’Connor returned to Koroit – the team she won a flag with in 2005.

Her husband Damian was appointed assistant coach for the Saints’ senior footy side, and O’Connor jumped at the chance to play alongside her sister Emily Batt in the open grade team.

But with Batt a lock in goal keeper, O’Connor moved into goal defence, with Saints playing coach Kasey Owen moving up to wing defence.

But the move has worked a treat for the Saints, who are vying for a premiership in next Saturday’s open grade grand final.

“I wish I was a lot fitter with how quick the game is and how good some young players are,” O’Connor said with a laugh about her new role.

“It took a little to get used to – I’m obviously covering a bit more court – but I think I just play by knowing what to go for and what not to go for. But the girls I play alongside are very experienced and really help out a lot, so it makes our job easier down the defence end.

“The girls are really good, we might try to do a zone defence to make it easier – Em’s not too young either.”

O’Connor said she was “loving” the move back to the Victoria Park-based club, where a lot of her side of the family are involved.

It gives hers and Damian’s children Indi, 7, Billy, 5, and Remi, 3, the chance to run around with their cousins.

O’Connor, who finished joint runner-up in the league award in 2015, polled well from early in the season, leading by nine votes after 12 rounds and going on to win by five votes from a fast-finishing Leah Sinnott.

The Camperdown wing attack produced three best-on-ground performances in the final three rounds to rocket to the runner-up position.

Sinnott’s season had a delayed start as she battled hamstring and lower back issues, not making her first appearance until round seven, but she hit peak form in her new position at wing attack as she built up continuity.

“I’m certainly very surprised to be standing here, that’s for sure,” Sinnott said to a packed room at Deakin University, the venue of Sunday’s vote count. “I’ve been plagued with injuries since the start of the season, so it was nice to be able to contribute once I came up.

“It’s been a few years since I played senior netball, just having time off with injuries and whatnot, and I decided at the end of last season to try to have a crack and get myself fit.”