Quintin van Jaarsveld
From humble beginnings to the Women’s Hockey Junior World Cup, Donna Small’s star shone brightly in the green and gold at the global showcase in Chile recently.
South Africa were one of 16 of the world’s best women’s Under-21 teams vying for the title over 10 action-packed days at the Club Deportivo Manquehue complex.
Port Shepstone-born Small was one of the stars of the South African side, who toiled hard but finished the tournament in 14th place after winning one, drawing one and losing three of their matches.
From making her Under-21 national debut in the tournament opener to scoring crucial goals, Small showed she was born to play at the highest level.
It was a rollercoaster ride for the South Africans, one filled with excitement, nerves, promise and disappointment, with pride being the only constant in the Chilean cauldron.
A beaming Small said she treasured every moment on and off the pitch and described the tournament as an unforgettable experience.
“Travelling to a foreign country is always exciting, but doing it with 18 of your friends is incredible! Besides playing the game we all love and learning a lot about our individual games, we met new friends, learned some Spanish and made memories that will last a lifetime,” she told eHowzit.
“Having my parents, brother and boyfriend there also made the experience that much more special – especially since they were the loudest in the crowd.”
Her road to the Chilean capital of Santiago was an improbable one. As a small-town athlete, she had to go the extra mile to make a name for herself.
Hers was a considerably more challenging sojourn than those travelled by her powerhouse-school peers, however, it was evident from an early age that Small was a special talent.
The former Creston College head girl represented South Africa at Under-16 and Under-18 level, and superlative showings at Varsity College saw her being called up to the KwaZulu-Natal Under-21 side.
The lethal link and midfield maestro caught national selectors’ eye with her goal-scoring prowess and all-round attacking flair and was drafted into the South African Under-21 team for the Junior World Cup, where the Junior African Cup champions were grouped with Australia, hosts Chile and England in Pool C.
She featured in a couple of warm-up games and scored against Zimbabwe in the lead up to the tournament, but her long awaited debut came in the Junior World Cup opener against Oceania champions Australia.
It was a monumental moment, unlike any she’d experienced before, and whilst she was admittedly emotional, she was able to focus on the task at hand.
“I was nervous as I ran out to sing the national anthem, but after the anthems were finished, I was excited to play,” she said.
“That moment meant a lot to me – it was the result of hard work, passion and a lot of support. Playing for your country is naturally overwhelming, but after the anthem I managed to refocus and play the game I have been playing my whole life. I convinced myself that it was just another hockey game.”
The Australian ‘Jillaroos’ proved to be too strong for their South African counterparts, the eventual bronze medallists winning 7-0.
Small said it was a bitter disappointing start to the tournament but said they stayed mentally strong.
“We had opportunities and so did the Australians – they took theirs and we didn’t capitalise. We could have narrowed the score line by making better decisions, but if we had to be honest, they were the better team.
“The spirit in the squad after the loss was dampened, but we still had a lot of hockey to play and so many more opportunities to play for our country, so we refocused and prepared for our next game.”
Next up was a daunting task against a Chile side spurred on by a passionate home crowd. South Africa produced a much-improved performance and tried their best to silence the home fans, but Chile broke the deadlock after only five minutes.
South Africa hit back through Gretchin Davids in the 51st minute, but Chile restored the lead three minutes later and held on for a 2-1 win to dash South Africa’s quarter-final hopes.
“In our minds, it’s a game we should have won. Chile wanted it more than we did on the day. We had our chances, we just didn’t take them.”
Small came to the fore in a big way in the final pool game against England. South Africa found themselves trailing 3-1 after 41 minutes, with captain Natalie Esteves scoring from a penalty corner just before half-time.
Small then led the South African fight back in an inspired performance, arguably the best of her career thus far, which saw her score two great goals to guide her team to a gutsy 3-all draw.
Her first score in South African Under-21 colours materialised from a counter attack, Small looking to link up with a striker before finding herself in the circle with some time to shoot. She didn’t need a second invitation and found the back of the net with a laser accurate strike.
“That was probably the best feeling of my hockey career. Scoring a goal was definitely not a goal I set myself going into the competition. I just wanted to play consistent, competitive hockey.”
An overhead from vice-captain Marizen Marias in midfield saw Small storm into the circle and push the ball under a sliding goalkeeper for her second goal. She said the character-filled comeback meant the world to her.
“I walked off the field in tears. I was just happy I could do something special for the girls I had the privilege to play next to. It’s a game I’ll remember forever.”
She refused to take credit for the come-from-behind draw, however, insisting it was a team effort.
“Even though I had the opportunity to show some individual flair scoring those two goals, without the counter attack and the overhead, it wouldn’t have happened. It’s a team sport – I just had a good day.
“During our team talk, our coach told us that if we wanted it we had to make it happen and Natalie’s goal gave us momentum and belief going in to the second half.”
South Africa were rewarded for their tenacity when they beat France 3-1 in a penalty shootout in the 13th/16th place play-off.
Goalkeeper Marlise van Tonder kept a cool head in the South African goal, allowing just one shot to get past her, while Esteves, Danielle Cairns and Tegan Fourie scored to seal South Africa’s first win of the tournament.
Small felt it wasn’t pretty but it was nevertheless a special moment. “We were happy with the win, but a little disappointed with our performance on the field. It definitely wasn’t our best performance.”
South Africa’s campaign came to a disappointing end when they suffered an 8-2 loss to New Zealand in the 13th/14th place play-off, Tarryn Glasby and Cairns scoring the team’s goals.
“Overall, we were disappointed with our placing at the end of the tournament,” said Small, “but on a different day, with different divisions, maybe a higher placing would have been possible. We did play some competitive hockey and learned a lot from the experience.
“It’s three weeks of my life I’ll never forget. Wearing green and gold is an honour and something I would love to do again.”
Argentina were crowned champions for the first time in 23 years when they defeated Netherlands 4-2 in the final.