Sophie Stapleford has been travelling to train and play her whole football career.
Now, the Cessnock 27-year-old is excited to be leading the way for other Hunter Valley products by joining Maitland and helping to establish her local club in Herald Women's Premier League.
Maitland Football Club have replaced Thornton in Northern NSW Football's top-flight women's competition. They will be coached by Keelan Hamilton, who mentored New Lambton to the 2019 premiership-championship double.
"It's as close to a home game as it gets for me and that's exciting," Stapleford said. "You don't get the opportunity to be a part of a new club very often and helping create the foundations of a positive, ambitious environment that we strive to play in is exciting.
"Hopefully others see the way it can be as a club both on and off the field and want to be a part of that. Maitland will open a lot more pathways to Hunter girls and that is fantastic."
Hamilton considered the striker "one of the best players in the league" and expected Stapleford to play an important role in a Magpies squad predominantly made up of young, local players out to prove themselves.
"Technically, she has excellent ability. Athletically, she's very competent and we definitely hope that she plays a big role for us," Hamilton said. "And I'm sure she will. But we need to provide the support for her as well because it's definitely not going to have to be just the Sophie show.
"It's going to have to be a team effort for the squad that we have and we have to put some mechanisms around that to allow her to shine. That's exactly what we're trying to do."
It was not just Stapleford's talent that appealed to the club.
"Getting Sophie on board was a really big thing for us as a football club," Hamilton said. "When I took the job, one of the key focuses for the club was to try to attract players that were living in the Hunter Valley to play for the only club in the Hunter, and also to try to retain our players that were of a high standard from the Hunter Valley."
Starting from scratch will be the biggest challenge for Maitland this year but Stapleford is no stranger to adversity. In 2015, she was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour. After risky surgery and a long recovery, the teacher's aide returned to play three seasons with Warners Bay from 2017 before joining New Lambton last year.
The Eagles struggled through a reduced 2020 season, finishing seventh with only seven points from 14 outings.
"I think last year in general was tough for everybody, learning how to adapt and sacrificing things you wouldn't normally have to due to COVID," Stapleford said. "New Lambton had a lot of challenges throughout an already disrupted season but I think the girls as a group held it together well given the circumstances.
"I was happy with my own football last season, even if we didn't get the results. I missed the last five games of the season [through injury] and was still able to make [Herald WPL] Team Of The Year. I think getting out of my comfort zone at New Lambton was a blessing for me."
Stapleford put a lot of time and thought into what she wanted from this season before choosing the Magpies.
"I've worked hard to be where I am," she said. "I've had a lot of big challenges over the years just to get back to where I am on the pitch and in full health.
"Being coached by Keelan, somebody who knows the game so explicitly, is exactly what I need this year. He sees a lot of potential in me and that's a big confidence booster.
"He is someone who is so dedicated to his coaching, someone who coaches with so much intent and purpose but, overall, is just a genuinely good person who wants to see you do good. I trust in his process and believe he will do well with the squad he has chosen."
Maitland are set to open their WPL campaign by hosting Broadmeadow at Cooks Square Park on March 29.
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