Deakin Providing Claws To Cats

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For Deakin University community engagement manager Julie Hope, her passion for the role, the Geelong Football Club and her town is obvious. Her voice has a tinge of excitement every time she mentions the word ‘Geelong’, and it is infectious.

Hope’s face gleams with pride as she speaks to Dscribe of Deakin’s partnership with the Cats, which she helped facilitate along with the University’s Vice Chancellor Professor Jane den Hollander and Deakin COO Kean Selway. Now, a large team from Deakin and the Cats is actively working in the key areas of the partnership.

“We (Deakin and the Cats) are both high achievers. We both punch above our weight in a small town,” Hope says as we chat in the newly opened Charles and Co Café in the bowels of Simonds Stadium. As a hive of Cats supporters shuffle around us taking in the new expanses, Hope says the club set a new membership record this season to cross the 58,000 barrier.

“We both have about 58,000 students and members, it’s nearly a match. It is a nice marriage isn’t it?”

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Just as local football clubs rely on volunteers as their lifeblood and not just a squad of players and coaches, the same applies to the uber-professional level of the AFL. Partnerships like the one Deakin University has with the Geelong Cats is one of many that create a connection for the community to the club. The partnership with Deakin however may not be beaten AFL-wide, as no other club in the competition is as regionally based as the Geelong football club, compared to the dense Melbourne area in which the main hub of AFL clubs exist.

“We’re not doing it for the profiling. We’re doing this for the benefit of the community, for the benefit of our sport science students, for the benefit of the Cats,” Hope says.

“Sometimes we’re maybe a bit subtle about it all, because we’re all just working hard in the partnership.”

The Deakin-Cats partnership can be summarised under four key areas: The Deakin Cats Community Centre, the School of Exercise and Nutrition Science collaboration with the Cats Football Department High Performance Team, the Cats training move to the Deakin Waurn Ponds Elite Sport Precinct and match day engagement.

“We’re both high achievers. We both punch above our weight in a small town” – Julie Hope

The Deakin Cats Community Centre is an 800 square metre facility on the ground floor of the Players Stand at Simonds Stadium which includes a computer lab, meeting room and a multi-purpose area. The Centre is the Cats’ biggest avenue to achieve its vision of greater engagement with the Geelong community, with Deakin saddling along.

“80,000 community members have used that centre for free (since opening in 2013), using our name and the Cats’. So to me, that is the great community engagement part of it,” Hope says.

Everyone who uses the Deakin-Cats Centre uses Deakin branded pens and notepads, and Hope believes the relationship between the University and the football club is becoming more “implicit”; Hope never gives the address of the Centre without labelling it the ‘Deakin Cats Community Centre’.

The Deakin Cats Community Centre

Professor den Hollander is equally proud of the Centre, stating “with every person who walks through its doors, the Deakin Cats Community Centre is raising educational aspirations for all students”, and with such an intrinsic love for the Geelong community, it’s hard not to believe them.

 

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The collaboration between the Geelong Cats High Performance Team and Deakin’s School of Exercise and Nutrition Science is “huge” for both parties according to Hope, its role becoming more vital.

“It provides a great classroom for the students. Certainly our marketing division have picked up on those strong messages, we are number one in the world for Sports Science,” Hope says.

“We’ve got some signage on the Cats interchange bench promoting the sports science. It’s perfect placement really because when they (the players) come off, they’re having their performance tracked during the game with the Deakin Nutrition and Sports Science people who are involved on match days.”

The program, led by Dr Jackie Tran who was a joint appointment between Deakin and the Cats, also allows 10 undergraduate students to spend time with the football club, while employment opportunities to Honours students each year are available to undertake collaborative research with AFL player data.

An engagement program with International students forms the third aspect of the partnership, and Hope speaks with clarity and pride about the program, which offers 100 Deakin International students the chance to meet players and receive tickets to matches which, “gives them an interest in their town and makes them part of the social fabric of their community”, as Hope puts it.

 

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The final part of the Deakin-Cats partnership is quite possibly going to be the biggest aspect of the relationship going forward. In 2016 at Deakin’s Waurn Ponds Campus, an oval the size and scale of the MCG was opened for students and the Geelong Football Club. The ploy – whose wheels were put in motion by the university’s Chief Operations Officer Kean Selway – was deliberate to make it the same dimensions as the MCG, enabling the AFL side to train on the ground to familiarise itself with the different layout in the week leading up to a game at the MCG.

The MCG-scale ground at Deakin’s Waurn Ponds campus

“The first time they trained there, it was a really awful day because it was windy and raining and I didn’t think they’ve ever come back!” Hope exclaimed, throwing her arms back.

“Steve Hocking (ex-Geelong Football Operations manager) and I were at Deakin a few years ago in the REACH building and we were looking out over the (what used to be a) swamp and thought ‘gee that would be a good place for an oval,” she recalled.

While Hope stresses the ground is just “seen as more of a base” at the moment, the chance of games being played there by the AFL side is not outside the realms of possibility. Already, the Geelong VFL Women’s Team (“I’m proud of the fact Deakin stood up and said we’ll support the girls”) have played for premiership points on the ground, as have the Under 18 Geelong Falcons side, which took out this year’s TAC Cup;  the premier under age competition nationwide. Hope was coy on future plans for the AFL side to step out and play a game on the university campus, but as basketball and football teams in America have shown, it is possible.

“At this point, I wouldn’t say no,” she said.

“That facility is first and foremost for students and community, we have to remember that. We love having the Cats there to be part of our fabric.”

 

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As we get up to leave Simonds Stadium with the interview done, Hope’s eyes light up.

“We are one town, one team and one university. Don’t forget to put that in!!”

Indeed we are. Blue and white passion runs deep in this town.

 

 

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