IT has been another arduous season on the field in the Bendigo Football-Netball League for Castlemaine.
The Magpies are again languishing at the bottom of the ladder with an average losing margin of 142 points and having now gone 46 games since their last win.
But while the all-too-familiar heavy losses have again continued to mount, senior captain David Stephens says he and his young playing group under coach Don Moran are still finding plenty of enjoyment in the challenge of desperately trying to improve and get the club competitive again in the BFNL.
LUKE WEST: Clearly the results show it has been another tough year on the field for Castlemaine. As captain of the club, how would you describe season 2021 for the Magpies?
DAVID STEPHENS: "Obviously the results have been disappointing. We don't want to be going out there each week losing by the margins that we have been, but it's all about a process for us.
"We're pretty much starting from scratch this year and our focus is on improvement from week to week both on and off the field and we believe we are starting to see that as a club.
"Obviously, there's a long way to go, though."
What is the improvement you believe the team has shown over the course of the year that gives you some hope there could finally be some light at the end of the tunnel coming?
"It all starts with improvement on the track and we've been able to keep our training numbers up.
"The leadership group came together recently and in the second half of the year we want to be able to improve on our results from the first time we played teams.
"In our last game against Eaglehawk, even though the result wasn't good, it was a lot better than the first time we played them.
NOTE - Eaglehawk beat Castlemaine by 228 points in round three. In their round 11 meeting the Hawks' winning margin was 136 points.
"But it's not just about what the final result is, we want to go out there and kick goals as well and generate some excitement, particularly because we're so young.
"The first time we played Eaglehawk we only kicked one goal, whereas the second time we played them we kicked six goals, which is an obvious improvement.
"We want to be able to get it done at both ends... kick goals ourselves, reduce the opposition's scoring chances and have some fun."
Speaking of kicking goals, you managed to slot two against Eaglehawk last game. That must have been enjoyable for you having spent so much of your time deep in defence.
"I barely get down to the forward line these days, which is a lot different to earlier in my playing days when in under-16s and under-18s, that's where I played all my football.
"As soon as I came up to Castlemaine it was about trying to find my role as a player and I started out in the back pocket, then I went to the back flank, then full-back and centre half-back depending on match-ups.
"But the good thing about Don (Moran, coach) is he will switch you around and have a bit of fun with you.
"He doesn't want you to get stale in the one position even though that's where you may usually play.
"He is happy to swap you around and that's what happened against Eaglehawk and instead of me chasing tail, I had someone chasing me around and it was good fun."
As a key defender are you able to give some insight into just how difficult it has been playing in the Castlemaine backline in recent years. I assume there have been plenty of days where it felt like the ball was never out of your defensive 50.
"Yeah, it has been hard... there's no other way to say it.
"You're coming up against the best players from around the area every week and that's the challenge that I've always loved.
"Even though those opponents may be getting hit-up on the chest easily at times, it's a challenge I really enjoy.
"Hopefully, if you can do a half-decent job you start to build a bit of respect for yourself."
Having played more than 150 senior games for the club since 2008, you've clearly been very loyal to Castlemaine. What has kept you at the club through what has been a very sustained difficult period?
"It's where I grew up and the footy club gives me that opportunity to play against the best. If you're not doing that then I don't think you're getting your best out of yourself.
It's where I grew up and the footy club gives me that opportunity to play against the best. If you're not doing that then I don't think you're getting your best out of yourselfDavid Stephens - Castlemaine senior captain
"By staying at Castlemaine I've lost the chance to play footy with a lot of my best mates because they've gone elsewhere for whatever the reason may be.
"But for me, it's all about the challenge of playing the best standard of footy you can each week."
One of the big challenges for the club it would seem is to create that culture where there are more players like yourself who commit for the long-term to create some stability in the list and reap the benefits of young players gaining senior experience.
"There's a lot of players who have come and gone, but the club needs to do the right thing to be able to keep its players.
"What we're doing this year is a small step, but what I'm hearing from people is it's a lot better around the club than what it has been in years previously."
It has been so long now since the club's last win, can you remember what it's like to walk off the ground with that winning feeling and sing the song?
"I know the club's last win was against Maryborough in round one of 2018, but, unfortunately, I didn't play in that game.
"To be honest, I couldn't tell you the last winning game I played in, so it has been a long time."
NOTE - The last winning game Stephens played in was July 2, 2017, when Castlemaine beat Kangaroo Flat 7.15 (57) to 5.14 (44).
It's clearly a very inexperienced side at Castlemaine this year. Who are some of those young players who have you really excited about what they could grow into once they get some experience behind them?
"Riley Pedretti has been massive for us and if we can keep him on board for next year then he's going to be huge for us.
"Don's son, Will Moran, has got the footy smarts like his old man does. I don't think he'll be a centre half-back like his old man, but the footy smarts are definitely there with Will.
"Brodie Byrne is 17 and is a really promising player, there's Ben Moran and Callum McConachy, who is just hard as nails and would be leading our tackle count.
"He comes off the ground hurting every week and is a really good kid.
"And Declan Slingo is another young lad who has been huge for us."
With the way the fixture now is, it looks like your best opportunities to get that breakthrough win will come in rounds 17 and 18 with back-to-back home games against Kangaroo Flat and Maryborough. What would it mean for you and the players to get the monkey off the back and be able to sing the song even just once this year?
"It would be massive. I haven't had that feeling yet as captain, so that would be great, but just for the boys and the club as a whole it would be huge.
"Even for the town it would be awesome and to be honest, I think it would be one of my greatest footy feelings if it could happen this year.
"If we roll into those last couple of games red-hot then we've got it in us if we keep trying to do the right things and improving every week.
"But there's a lot of work to do on the training track and making sure our bodies are right. If we do that then for sure I think we'd be a massive chance."
You've played under quite a few different senior coaches through your time at Castlemaine - Jamie Elliott, Paul Eyles, Len Watson, Rod Keogh briefly, Brett Fitzpatrick, Shane Robertson, Shawn Filo, Derrick Filo and now Don Moran.
How have you found Don as the coach of the club?
"He's just about No.1 I'd say in terms of his footy smarts.
"He picks up on all the small things really well and he teaches us players a lot about footy craft.
"He gives really good support and belief, but it's all those small aspects that he teaches you that gets you feeling good about your game.
"He's a coach who really concentrates on your strengths, which is huge.
"He's very positive and that makes going down to footy training on a Tuesday and Thursday a lot easier.
"You know every week you go to training or for a game on a Saturday you're learning about football.
"I'm 32 now and still learning about the game and that's what is making this year still enjoyable... we're having fun out there at training because we're learning the game."
So as the heavy losses have continued to pile up, the grind of football week-to-week hasn't become a chore?
"No, not at all. By the results it could probably look like that would be the case, but it's not.
"With the feeling we've got among the group, it's not a chore at all.
"It might sound a bit silly, but this is one of the most fun years of footy I've ever had.
"It would obviously be a lot better if we were winning games, but as a footy club we know it's going to be a process, which you've probably heard Don say to you a lot because he says it to us every week at training.
"We know where we are as a club and we've just got to make sure we're doing all the little things to get that process right."
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