It’s not often a losing football team walks off the field at the end of the game feeling on top of the world, with the mood in the change-rooms one of jubilation.
But that’s exactly what happened after the new Castlemaine’s youth girls’ side dropped its historic opening match to Huntly this season.
The fact they finished within seven points of last year’s runners-up in their first competitive hit-out was only part of the story – the real reason for their joy was their pure love of footy.
“You could have sworn they’d won the grand final,” recalls coach Krys Noonan.
“We lost, but the girls were so pumped because they’d actually played a game of football and there was so much positive chatter in the rooms afterwards.”
Amazingly, the Magpies have not been beaten since their April debut.
With just one home-and-away match remaining, they sit on top of the ladder and head into the finals a genuine premiership contender.
It’s a record AFL newcomers Gold Coast and Greater Western Sydney could only dream of.
But as everyone around the team is at pains to point out, the yardstick of their season won’t be whether or not they win the grand final.
“I don’t think a premiership would reflect the overall success we have had as a team this year,” says assistant coach and Bendigo Thunder forward Alana Wearne.
“It would be wonderful for the club but, win or lose, we’ve already kicked a lot of goals!”
The coaches put their side’s remarkable record down to a combination of great teamwork, a strong sense of fair play, staying grounded and an overriding commitment to having fun.
Older girls act as mentors for younger players; on-field leaders insist on respect for umpires and integrity towards team-mates and the opposition; no negativity is allowed.
The dedication of the playing group is such that some girls have been known to play half a game before rushing off to have a shower and go to work at their part-time jobs.
“They’d rather play half a game than none at all,” laughs Noonan, a former cricketer.
Team members range in age from 13 to 17 and most attend Castlemaine Secondary College, where Wearne teaches.
Almost every girl plays another sport, like netball or basketball, so their coaches focus on adapting their athleticism and ball skills to Aussie rules – with amazing results.
“When we first started they could barely handball,” says Noonan, “and now they’ll all have a go at bouncing and they’ll back themselves, even if they get it wrong at times.”
Castlemaine is one of the oldest football clubs in Australia, forming in June 1859 just a month after Melbourne Football Club became the nation’s first established.
In 2013, it added under-10 and 12 teams to its junior ranks, as well as the under-18 girls.
Junior coaching director and committee member Michael Blake says officials could not be happier with how things have panned out.
Blake says there were initial reservations about the viability of a girls’ team but, with the backing of committee chairman Bill O’Neil and incentives from the Bendigo Junior Football League and AFL Central Victoria, the club decided to give it a go.
“Right from the first training session, the girls came out firing the support was immense,” he says. “It has gone from strength to strength and been an overwhelming success.”
AFL Victoria is also delighted to see the Magpies making their mark on the competition.
“We knew there was a need for a team in Castlemaine, which has a strong sporting history,” female football development officer Chyloe Kurdas says.
“It’s no surprise when you bring a critical mass of girls together in a community with a strong sporting culture that it has worked so well. It’s something new and exciting for them and the girls have brought such passion and enthusiasm.
“They also have good leadership at the club from both a coaching and management perspective and that’s why it has been a success.”
Wearne says the whole town has thrown its support behind the female side and is proud of its achievements, both in winning games and developing its players.
“There is a real sense of pride in the community – everyone is chatting about it,” she says.
“Of a Monday morning when I get to school, one of the first questions I am asked is ‘how did the girls go?’”
Even before the Magpies endorsed the move last summer, there had been talk among Castlemaine teenagers about forming a girls’ football team.
Within a week of it becoming official, 20 or so girls had signalled their interest.
There are strong family links to the footy club among the players.
Brianna Eyles’s dad Paul is a 2001 Michelsen medallist; Megan Ginnivan’s dad played for the Magpies; Lana O’Neil’s dad is on the committee; and Tiahna Cochrane’s dad coaches the under-14 boys.
The side has produced Bendigo interleague representatives – Brenda Mona-Taofinuu, Chonlathorn Meemusour, Meg Tong, Georgia Stone, Tiahna Cochrane and Meg Ginnivan – and forward Teagan Noonan is among the league’s leading goal kickers for the season.
“I just love watching Teagan play,” says Wearne. “She seems like she has forever to dispose of the ball and you think she’s going to get caught, but they never get close to her.
“She casually slots goals through here and there from angles that look impossible.”
Co-captain Meg Tong and midfielder Marla Neal also drew high praise from their coaches.
“Meg has stood up above what I imagined from a captain,” says Noonan.
“She calms the girls down on the ground if it looks like getting fiery and she won’t accept any backlash towards the umpires from her team- mates. She does the pre-match warm-up and has been fantastic.
“And Marla is by far the strongest, toughest girl on that ground week in, week out. She’s unbelieveable. There could be a pack of 10 girls and she’ll come steaming out with the ball.”
Noonan says the girls are “not getting big heads”, even with people around them talking about finals and premiership possibilites.
Castlemaine travels to Kyneton on Sunday for its last match before the finals and the Magpies are wary, expecting a hard-fought encounter.
“We had a cracker of a game against them recently – it was probably the toughest two quarters we had played all year against a pretty skilled side,” says Noonan.
“Our girls knew they had to lift and they did, running away with it in the second half.
“Kyneton has improved every week and picked up some good players during the season.”
As for the Magpies, almost every player on its list this year will be eligible for the youth girls competition again in 2014 – a daunting proposition for opposition teams.
But Wearne stresses the side is about more than putting the score on the board.
“Having fun is the main thing,” she says. “Winning is a bonus.”