The Super Netball Grand Final has finally arrived, after an extended pre-season, a three-month delay to the competition, and the many other curveballs that 2020 has thrown, and Melbourne Vixens have plenty of motivation to bring the Super Netball trophy to their locked-down home town following a six-year absence from the big dance.
Rushed onto buses and flown out of Victoria at short notice just weeks before the rescheduled Super Netball start date, players and team staff had no idea how long they would be leaving their family and friends behind, or how far the state would descend into COVID-19 lockdown during their time away.
While the relocation wasn't unique to the Vixens -- the Giants, West Coast Fever, NSW Swifts and Adelaide Thunderbirds also had to relocate for the season -- Melbourne and Collingwood Magpies were the only sides forced into quarantine, a process that could have easily derailed the side.
Before the squad had even arrived in Queensland, they had a clear idea of the sacrifices being made to keep their season alive; the bus trip to Melbourne Airport marked the first time that many players met backend staff who would help keep the club running, and learn about the families that staff members would be leaving behind.
"It was such a quick decision when we had to leave," Vixens co-captain Liz Watson told ESPN.
"We were kind of on call waiting for that flight, so I think as soon as we got on the bus to the airport and then on the plane it started to feel real.
"There are a couple of staff members that we pretty much just met on the bus ride to the airport; they'd been part of the program but not officially with the Vixens. Some of them have children back home doing homeschooling in Victoria, so there are heaps of challenges.
"At the start they didn't really know how long they were going to be here for; initially two weeks, then four weeks, and now they're just committed to staying the whole time. Having them say they want to be here with us, they're enjoying their time, you're really appreciative they've left so much back home. For them to say they're here for the whole run gives you a boost and we're just going to do it all together. They've been awesome."
Having played their first match of the season in quarantine and experienced the surprise introduction of the two-point shot and midweek matches, the Vixens have taken every change and challenge in their stride. They dropped just one game in the regular season, claimed the minor premiership and made a statement in their semifinal demolition of Sunshine Coast Lightning.
Their game plan is simple but effective: Treasure the ball and play smart netball. There's no need for razzle dazzle from the Vixens, despite how many star players are in the squad, as their game is about substance and getting the basics right.
So far it's proven successful.
"We do feel confident. I think there's a lot of belief and confidence in the group and I think that comes off the way that we've been playing this season," Vixens coach Simone McKinnis told ESPN.
"We've been pretty consistent and pretty strong, and we've found a way to win in some pretty tough and different situations; so I think we're in a good position heading into final."
Watson backed up her coach's thoughts.
"There's a real belief and confidence about the way that we're playing, and the way the girls feel about how they're playing.
"We've been able to win games in different ways. We've shown this season if it's a really tight game, or if we're ahead by a lot, we've been able to push on and win the game. That's given the group lots of confidence and belief going into any match, knowing that we can find a way to win. That's what it is; finding a way and grinding it out.
"I think going into the final that's super important; that belief and trust in the game and your trust in each other. It's been a long season, and we've been through a lot together; we're just really determined to finish it off strong and in the best way possible."
With confidence, belief and perhaps the most talented side in the competition, it appears to be now or never for the Vixens to break their six-year title drought. Just days before the semifinal two of the Vixens, key players Caitlin Thwaites and Tegan Philip announced they would be retiring at the end of the season; two of the most important cogs in the Vixens machine, and the most experienced players in the squad, their retirement leaves a huge hole in the side and will no doubt lead to a rebuilding phase.
"There's a lot of things we want to play for this season, and their retirement is obviously one of them and I think they would want to finish off on a really big high," Watson told ESPN.
"Both of them have sacrificed a lot throughout their whole career, but also this year in particular.
"Obviously we want to finish off on such a high for them and their careers, but there's just so many things across this team that will make that premiership extra special; it's the whole 2020; it's being away from family and friends; it's the retirements; it's lots of different things as well."
Since leaving Melbourne, the Vixens have seen their families endure months of Stage 4 lockdown restrictions as they themselves have enjoyed relative freedom while in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast.
Watson said the players were lucky, and their families provided further inspiration to win the title.
"We're quite lucky we can actually walk to a cafe or go to a beach," Watson said.
"I kind of feel guilty telling people back home what we've been up to. My family's loved watching netball -- that's probably been the highlight of the week -- so it's nice to know they're back home watching.
"It gives everyone that extra motivation.
"We're up here doing our job and what we need to do, while back home it's pretty low key at the moment; there's not a whole lot happening [in Victoria].
"[Victory] would make it all worth it, and give people back home in Victoria something to cheer about."