The Illawarra Stingrays have had an impressive second half of the season, knocking off some of the competition heavyweights in the process.
Just a couple of months ago the Stingrays were treading precariously in the relegation danger zone but have turned their fortunes around with some big wins including against top of the table APIA Leichhardt and locked-in semi-finalists NWS Spirit FC.
On the weekend the Illawarra side also played a huge role in the title race, holding second-placed Macarthur Rams to a draw and putting the advantage firmly in APIA’s favour ahead of the final round.
The Stingrays nearly ended Macarthur’s record unbeaten run, with Sham Khamis forced to save a second half penalty to keep the scores level.
Veteran defender Caitlin Cooper has been a constant at the club over recent years, and put the turnaround down to the growing chemistry in the squad.
“It was a bit disappointing at the start of the season because we didn’t have everyone in because of the A-league.
“I think back end of the season, which is probably a little bit too late, we are playing together more, training together more, and the results are coming our way.”
After a successful A-League career of 141 games at four clubs, Cooper retired from professional football in September last year.
Her most successful years were at the Western Sydney Wanderers, where she was co-captain for several seasons and awarded the prestigious Wanderers Medal for Player of the Year in 2021.
The 35-year-old says it is amazing to see how much the sport has grown since the start of her professional career in 2008.
“When it [the W-league] first started, we were getting paid not enough to cover our tolls.”
Cooper’s proudest achievement was getting the opportunity to play for the Matildas.
After representing Australia at youth level, the defender made 10 appearances for the senior team and was a squad member for the 2017 Tournament of Nations and 2018 Asian Cup.
“Making the Matildas was a massive thing for me, it was such an honour to wear the badge.”
Watching the success of the team at the World Cup was incredibly special for Cooper, who travelled across the country to watch the team play.
“It just gives me shivers thinking about it.
“To see the girls do what they did and see the nation come together, it was just unbelievable.
“And I keep saying it, who would have ever thought a few years ago that women’s football would have been this big in Australia.”
Although professionally retired, Cooper is loving playing for the Stingrays because of the club’s family vibe and to give back to the Illawarra community.
Having been with the club since 2009, she now has a lot of experience and leadership to offer the younger girls at the club.
“I just try to lead by example, put my heart on the field.”
With her career as a firefighter her main priority, Cooper is not sure whether she will play on next season. Either way, the Stingrays are sure to be grateful for her longevity, experience and incredible service to the club.
Written by Annabelle Banfield.