Pioneers gear up for national championships

SIX young guns from the Bendigo Bank Pioneers are in the running to represent Victoria Country at this year’s AFL national under-18 championships.

The titles kick off this Sunday when Country takes on Metro in the all-Victorian matches at Trevor Barker Beach Oval in Sandringham.

IN THE BIG V: Bendigo Pioneers clubmates Jaden McGrath, Billy Evans and Jake Maher are in Victoria Country's squad for the AFL's national under-18 championships. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

IN THE BIG V: Bendigo Pioneers clubmates Jaden McGrath, Billy Evans and Jake Maher are in Victoria Country's squad for the AFL's national under-18 championships. Picture: GLENN DANIELS

Sunday’s opening match at 11am will be for points in the NAB-sponsored championships.

Pioneers onballer Billy Evans will play in that contest.

The second of Sunday’s matches will be another trial to finalise Metro’s squad for the other five rounds of the under-18 series.

Bendigo team-mates Jake Maher, Liam Barrett, Aydin Johnson and Tommy Cole will be out to impress Country’s selectors in Sunday’s second game.

Another Pioneers midfielder-forward, Jaden McGrath is in the Country squad, but will not play because of a wrist injury.

Victoria Country’s team is coached by Bendigo’s Mark Ellis.

The Pioneers coach from 2005 to 2010 in the TAC Cup, Ellis is in charge of Country’s campaign for the third year running.

Ellis said on Thursday the Pioneers in the squad had worked extremely hard to earn a chance to play at the national titles.

“Billy Evans has been terrific in all of his TAC Cup matches and the under-18 trial games,” Ellis said.

“Billy will most likely play as an inside midfielder. His play at clearances and centre bounces is a major strength.

“He is a no-fuss player who just keeps on running hard, working hard in every contest, and one-grab mark.”

Evans said playing in the midfield was a great challenge.

“I played a lot of footy in the midfield at juniors for Kennington-Sandhurst.”

A move to the midfield began late last TAC Cup season.

Evans is now aligned with Sandhurst Football Club.

Ellis said the versatility of Maher, Barrett, Cole, Johnson and McGrath gave selectors many options to consider.

Captain of the David Newett-coached Pioneers in 2014, Maher is from Mallee Eagles.

He played in last year’s national under-18 titles match in Darwin.

“Jake can play back, midfield or forward,” said Ellis. “Liam Barrett’s best footy is half-back or half-forward, but he can also play in midfield.

“He kicks the ball and reads the play well,” Ellis said of Kyabram’s young star.

Cole and Johnson teamed up for Victoria Country at last year’s national under-16 titles.

“Tommy Cole has played consistent footy at half-back for the Pioneers.”

Cole’s club is Strathfieldsaye Storm.

Echuca’s Aydin Johnson is likely to play wing or half-forward.

He has missed the past two TAC Cup rounds to play for Scotch College.

Ellis said it would be a “wait and see” approach as to when McGrath plays.

A midfielder or half-forward from Kerang, McGrath has played just two TAC Cup under-18 matches this season. He toured with the AIS-AFL Academy earlier this season.

McGrath’s run included a hit-out against Collingwood’s VFL team at the MCG, and two matches with the Academy in London.

Victoria Country’s other matches in the under-18s campaign are against  South Australia at AAMI Park on June 1, Victoria Metro on June 8, WA in Fremantle on June 15, South Australia on June 27 in Geelong, and WA on July 2 at Etihad Stadium. 

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