BROOKE Herbertson remembers tagging along to Nestles training as a kid.
Her brothers Cam and 'Wiz' would hit the track while her father, Geoff Williams the second, would coach and provide tips.
Things were different.
Back then, it wasn't common for female cricketers to play beyond under 13s. There was no pathway for women or girls to simply grab bat or ball and play in a formal league as they entered teenage years.
Herbertson would pick up balls and help out where she could but batting practice against the boys was scarce.
After training finished, her dad would roll up his WB Commodore and use the headlights to light up the nets as the sun set on Reid Oval.
At training it's not seniors and juniors or girls and boys, we're all Nestles Cricket Club players. Everyone is seen as an equal and you're just seen as a cricketer.- Brooke Herbertson
Cam and Wiz would grab a bucket of balls to throw down to give her a hit, keeping her passion for the sport alive and thriving.
Fast-forward to 2022 and those flashbacks are a distant memory. There's now a booming under 14 and under 17 junior female competition with numbers the envy of many associations throughout Victoria.
The women's division - which launched with two teams in 2019-20 and expanded to four ahead of the 2020-21 campaign - now has six clubs involved and there's an appetite for more to join.
Data obtained by The Standard revealed female cricket teams in the Warrnambool district had grown 31 per cent in the past four years. Cricket Victoria estimated it was among the largest increases in the state and nation-wide.
Only the Geelong Cricket Association - which has a population of 253,269 to draw from compared to Warrnambool's 35,000 - was in the same vicinity.
The chance for Herbertson to represent Factory - a pioneering club of female cricket in the south-west - is special given her family roots.
"I was just talking to Dad the other day and he was fairly proud of himself. He's got both his boys, Cam and Wiz, who are top-20 cricketers and I was just announced the captain of the WDCA women's representative team," she said.
"So he's like super proud. He's like 'my three kids, they're all just doing something good in cricket'. He actually coached us all and I think that's special."
She said Nestles' culture meant it was a welcoming place to play cricket.
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"The club has this mantra, I suppose, we're not just a men's cricket club or a female cricket club. We're all together," Herbertson said.
"At training it's not seniors and juniors or girls and boys, we're all Nestles Cricket Club players. Everyone is seen as an equal and you're just seen as a cricketer.
"That's all you want to be seen as. When I started, I had to get the balls on the oval because girls weren't allowed to play."
Herbertson is now set in the history books as a premiership captain. Her side defeated West Warrnambool in this past season's decider and is on track to go back-to-back in 2022.
Warrnambool and District Cricket Association director of women's cricket Alicia Drew said the standard of female cricket in the region was rapidly improving.
She said the growth in quality year-on-year in both junior and senior female competitions was "incredible".
"I think it's in the numbers, they show that it's growing but it's the quality of the game as well," she said.
"Watching the growth of the players on the field, how they communicate with each other. Watching the under 17 Twenty20 final the other day, a couple of girls were saying 'I don't know if we have our field set right, should we do this, is that fielder too fine?'.
"I was standing there saying 'oh my god, these girls understand the game and they're 15 or 16 years old. They're critiquing field placement and I was shaking my head thinking I've been involved with cricket a really long time and I wouldn't even critique a field like that."
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Drew, who is also a major supporter of women's football and works for AFL Victoria, said the leap in class could be traced back to good coaching from clubs.
"I think it's coaching and I think things like the Georgia Wareham factor. Girls probably see her and think 'wow, someone from Mortlake is playing for Australia'," she said.
"I think the nature of the game - you've only got to look at division three and four on a weekend and there are chicks running around everywhere in those grades.
"That's the nature of cricket. Your Mikaela Dorans, your Gab Lenehans, your Tara Elliotts and your Carly Mittermairs - they're all playing on Saturday and Sunday because the nature of cricket allows them to.
"It's not like that in footy, because when you get to 14 people have been like 'right, you're out the door'. I think it's the nature of the sport that it is more open and welcoming and it gives people opportunity."
Female players have proven they have what it takes to compete in the association's top grade, too. Steph Townsend has played division one at Nirranda in the past and is currently club coach while youngster Maddie Green has featured in Port Fairy's first XI throughout the summer.
Warrnambool and District Cricket Association chairman Gordon McLeod said the female cricket first came to light at board level under his predecessor Nick Frampton.
He said many of the association's clubs were firmly behind the competition and were keen to grow the women's side of the sport.
"You've got to have people to drive it. You look at Southern Titans having a side, North Warrnambool is doing really well with it, Russells Creek is doing well with Eddie Wallace there," McLeod said.
"Most clubs have a team but our intention for the future is that all clubs will have a team and what's come out of it is that we've been sponsored by Cricket Victoria for a (female) under 11s competition next season.
"There'll be a full pathway for these girls to go right through then."
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Nick Ansell is a sports journalist at the Warrnambool Standard.
Nick Ansell is a sports journalist at the Warrnambool Standard.
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