What a feline!: The Cats feel great with 4th spot.
This time last year they were down to the last of their nine lives as they faced the all-important play-offs and a real possibility of relegation to National 2. Yesterday, after defeating Watsonians by three goals, they achieved fourth spot in National 1, and now they face the play-offs for a place in European competition!
Yep, it's all happening now for Western Wildcats Ladies 1's, but it's by no means been an overnight success. They started as a West District side under coach Murray Laing (former Western Men's 1's player/stalwart) and have worked their way up over the last decade to the top flight of National 1. Let's make no mistake here, the gulf alone between National 2 and National 1 ladies hockey is massive. It's a culture shock from a fitness point of view before anything else. That's not to say that fitness levels in National 2 and below are lacking - far from it; but n National 1, for the very best, it's a daily drill, a hardcore physical religion. There are many women in National 1 - particularly Scottish internationalists - who are hitting the free weights, and pounding the streets in their running shoes, before breakfast. Back from work or studying, later that day, they're back out doing the same ultra-rigorous routines again. It's never ending and continues day after day.
And then there's the technical side at top flight and the all-round skills required to really make it in National 1. Against the top teams, the vast majority of the time, there's simply no room for error. For a few years Grove Menzieshill and MCC Western were leading the pack, shadowed by Dundee Wanderers and a couple of other sides. But the last three years has seen the fantastic emergence (for want of a better description!) of Edinburgh University, under coach Sam Judge. This season they won all of their matches and scored a staggering 100 goals. In second and third spot, and finishing a fair bit behind them, are Grove and MCC Western respectively, who are still - despite losing some senior players - two great sides. And then in fourth place - can you believe it, it's Western Wildcats!
How has this happened? Well, patience, persistence and a level headed approach from ex-coach and now assistant coach, Murray Laing, has gone a long way to achieving this. He's been a great influence on a team, that in recent times, has been, and still is, populated by a number of youngsters. Laing is no stranger to success himself, with good, solid experience, after playing for a number of years with one of the best Western Men's sides to grace the Scottish game - so, that will have been passed on to this exciting, new generation of youngsters.
Loyalty from the older players has also played an important part in the Wildcats steady construction. Captain Lucy MacArthur and vice-captain Alex Stuart have stuck with their side through thick and thin, and the ups and downs, quite literally, of promotion and relegation. Staying loyal might sound like par for the course, but it's amazing in Scottish hockey the amount of divas - women and men - who float about from club to club, in a seemingly eternal quest for success, and in some cases regular ego-massages, all of it at the expense of loyalty to any club they ever play for. So, well done to these ladies, and a couple of others, for believing in a cause at Auchenhowie - win, draw or lose - that they always felt was worth fighting for. That loyalty was a real requirement and it's paid dividends.
However, what really moved Western Wildcats to the next level was the appointment at the start of last season of Giffnock player and Scotland internationalist, Kareema Marshall, as their new coach. It was a shrewd and indeed timely move by Western, with Giffnock destined for National 2. But, it was a bold and brave move too, for Kareema - better known as "Kaz" - Marshall. With an international career to look after and the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games on the horizon, she had to make a sensible move. She had a choice of a handful of clubs; and a jump over the fence from Giffnock's home ground into Titwood would have bagged her a place at MCC Western with immediate effect. But no, she took on the risky task of coaching a team of mostly schoolgirls. Murray Laing had done brilliantly getting them into National 1, but keeping them there was precarious to say the least. He did it, but now a new force was needed - and they have found it in Kaz Marshall.
Marshall, in the space of two seasons, has transformed the Cats from a team of hopefuls with undoubted talent and loads of potential, to a team of genuine contenders who have matured both mentally, and in the youngsters' cases, physically. Laing always had them well versed in preparation for any game. Player/coach Marshall's gutsy attitude has now given them an on-field confidence that seems to be serving them well beyond their years - and whilst last season was definitely shaky, this season has been far from that.
Kaz Marshall has injected her hockey experience, hockey passion and all-round happy disposition, into the veins of her ever eager students - and those ingredients have flowed through a team that have had a great season, and have deserved their 4th spot in the top flight.
Women's hockey in Scotland has changed a lot in the last couple of years, with young players coming through in the top teams, and at international level. It can't be more than six years ago that Kaz Marshall herself was one of the young players coming through - now she's one of the leaders. Exciting times ahead for Western Wildcats.
Photographs from yesterday's game - click here .