When Caitlin Cooper arrived at the Stingrays 12 years ago, no one could have predicted the impact she would have on Illawarra football.
Cooper was a rock in the side's defence during her first couple of seasons in pink, but the real turning point came in 2013 when she joined the Western Sydney Wanderers. Little did she know that her signing would be the catalyst to the Stingrays becoming a production line for the W-League club.
That bond between the two clubs was only strengthened in 2015 when Cooper's Stingrays teammate Erica Halloway also joined the Wanderers.
Cooper and Halloway have gone on to become mainstays for both teams, with the duo last week recommitting to the red and black for the upcoming W-League season.
Fellow Stingray Danika Matos will remain at the Wanderers and Sheridan Gallagher recently inked her first W-League deal, while the Mercury understands that Margaux Chauvet has also re-signed with the club. Other players to represent the Rays and Western Sydney in recent years include Olivia Price and Chloe Middleton.
"I think that bond comes down to two things. Caitlin then Erica started it, and then our Stingrays girls look after each other very well. They're a very tight bunch," Stingrays club president Kathy McDonogh said.
"Caitlin and Erica take on a mentoring role for the younger ones. Even things like training nights at the Wanderers, they will drive the young ones up and back. They're very invested in helping the young ones.
"Caitlin and Erica are also extremely loyal. I think it's Caitlin's eighth year with the Wanderers and Erica's seventh and they've been with the Stingrays forever. They're both so passionate and not just loyal to the club, they're loyal to each other."
Cooper and Halloway also share a special bond with another key Stingrays player, Michelle Carney. The pair played alongside the striker at the Wanderers before Carney departed the club at the end of the 2016/17 season.
The trio have been crucial for the Stingrays in recent seasons, including in 2021, where they played regular football together before their NSW Women's NPL campaign was cut short due to the COVID pandemic.
"You watch them play, and I know that it's a thing that gets bandied around in football, but they do play instinctively. They don't even have to look to see if the other one is there, they know they're there," McDonogh said.
"That's why Carney gets so many sneaky goals, she's like a fox in the box. Caitlin and Erica know to get the ball there, Carney will be there. They just have such a bond together."
We depend on subscription revenue to support our journalism. If you are able, pleasesubscribe here. If you are already a subscriber, thank you for your support.