IT only took Cherie O’Neill one training session with the Bendigo Thunder to get hooked back on football.
Back in early 2011 O’Neill arrived at the newly-formed Bendigo Thunder’s first training session to simply have a look at what all the fuss was about.
She liked what she saw and six years on not only hasn’t left the club, but is now in her second season as senior coach.
Like O’Neill, Sarah Baldwin has also been involved from day one with the Thunder, which on Sunday will notch a club milestone when it plays its 100th game.
“I had heard on the grapevine a women’s footy team was being put together in Bendigo and remember leaving for the first training session and saying to my husband, ‘I’m just going along for a look to see what happens’,” O’Neill said this week.
“I joined in that first night and had an absolute ball and from there I was hooked and keen to give it a crack.
“They were an amazing group of girls and it was a great opportunity to get back into playing footy.”
O’Neill had previously played junior football with Kangaroo Flat until the under-14s before she gave it away because “you couldn’t play with the boys after that”.
O’Neill played the first three years with the Thunder, spent 2014 as a trainer, 2015 as an assistant coach to Craig Riddiford and has been senior coach since last season.
As well as O’Neill and Riddiford, the Thunder have also been coached by Russell Jeffrey, who was at the helm of the club for its first four years.
In those four years under Jeffrey the Thunder won back-to-back premierships in 2012 and 2013 – first in the north west division of the Victorian Women’s Football League, the second in north west division one.
I joined in that first night and had an absolute ball and from there I was hooked and keen to give it a crackCherie O'Neill
From the humble beginnings of playing its first game against La Trobe Uni at Dower Park on April 3, 2011 – a four-point loss in which Emma Wolters wrote her name into the history books as kicking the club’s first goal – the Thunder has certainly made its mark on the football landscape in Bendigo.
As women’s football continues to grow rapidly, so too does the Thunder, which has this year introduced a second development team, regularly plays on the QEO, including a semi-final last year in front of a huge crowd, and has eight alumni – Emma Grant, Bella Ayre, Sarah Last, Hayley Trevean, Jess Kennedy, Elise Strachan, Ainslie Kemp and Angela Foley – who played in the inaugural season of the AFL Women’s competition.
And the club has just had first-year player Kerryn Harrington added to Carlton’s AFLW rookie list for 2018.
“It’s amazing how far the club has come… when I first started at the Thunder I never could have dreamed that there would be an AFL women’s competition,” said O’Neill, AFL Victoria’s Female Coach of the Year last season.
“It’s been fantastic to see the way both the club and women’s footy has evolved.
“It’s really important that the youth girls in Bendigo see a pathway through the Thunder as an opportunity to get to the AFLW. That’s my goal… to develop our players and get them reaching their full potential.”
However, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for the Thunder, with 2014 a year to forget when it was elevated to the premier league of the VWFL and endured a winless season with an average losing margin on 190 points and having to forfeit one game because of a lack of numbers.
2014, along with 2015, are the only two of the six completed seasons in which the Thunder have missed finals, with the club’s overall record 68-30-1 from its 99 games.
As well as the two premierships won in 2012 and 2013, the Thunder missed a golden chance to add a third flag last year when they went into the VWFL premier division grand final undefeated, only to lose to Deer Park by 13 points.
It’s the only loss O’Neill has suffered in her 23 games as coach, with the Thunder this year 6-0 in their first season in the new Northern Football Women’s League.
Like O’Neill, the formation of the Thunder presented Baldwin, 26, with the opportunity to return to football after she had grown too old to play with Eaglehawk’s youth girls team at the end of the 2008 season.
“For every year up until 2011 I had been told that it was going to be next year Bendigo was going to be getting a senior women’s team,” Baldwin said.
“It finally came about, but by then I had lost a bit of the drive to play football because I had been out of it for a couple of years.
“But I decided to give it another crack and it has been a fantastic experience, especially to win two premierships in the first three years.
“I was living in Echuca at the start and it was a bit difficult trying to juggle work with all the travel and I wasn’t sure whether it would work out, but meeting all the girls who shared the same passion for football… I haven’t wanted to give it up.
“It has been a bit of a roller-coaster over the years with many highs and a few lows, but the club is in a very good position going forward.”
The Thunder’s 100th game will be against a first-time opponent in Diamond Creek at Plenty Park Oval from noon on Sunday.
• Bendigo Thunder year by year:
2011, VWFL north west – 3rd, 8-6.
2012, VWFL north west – 1st, 13-1-1.
2013, VWFL north west division one – 1st, 17-0.
2014, VWFL premier league – 7th, 0-12.
2015, VWFL division one – 6th, 8-10.
2016, VWFL premier division – 2nd, 16-1.
2017, NFWL – 6-0