By Luke West
BEARS Lagoon-Serpentine heads into the 2022 Loddon Valley league season with a new coach at the helm.
Justin Laird has stepped up as playing coach, taking the reins from Greg Gadsden, who had been in charge since 2016 and guided the club through a rebuild.
A big omission from the Bears side is gun young ruckman Nathan Twigg, who is headed to North Central league club Boort.
Twigg finished runner-up to Newbridge's Harry Whittle in last year's Harding Medal and leaves a major void in the ruck, which Laird says he may have to fill.
"I'll probably have to go in there and play that role, but we'll look to rotate a couple of players in that position because it's a big void to fill," Laird said.
Also gone from the Bears is last year's three leading goalkickers in James Rippingale (16), Jesse Evans (15) and Tannar Cerrone (15), who between them slotted 46 goals, while key defender Orion Downing has also departed.
While the Bears' forward stocks from last year have taken a hit, they have added a full-forward in Rhonen Maher from Western Australia
"Rhonen is a small forward... he'd probably be around 177 to 180 cms, but he's the sort of electric player who will bring some real spark and energy in the forward line," Laird said.
"He will bring plenty of forward pressure and we're excited to have him.
"We've obviously lost some goalkickers from last year, so we're going to need players to step up... it's a team game and we don't want to be relying on individuals to kick a winning score, we have to do it as a team."
The Bears have also added Jacob Szitovsky and Anthony Brown, while also welcoming Charlie Gadsden, following a year overseas, and Harry Gadsden, after a season at Eaglehawk, back to the club.
The Gadsden brothers will slot back into the Bears' midfield brigade, Brown from St Arnaud will play in defence and Szitovsky - who has a gridiron background - is earmarked for potential roles in the backline or across half-forward.
The Bears - who won their last premiership in 1995 - finished 5th with a 5-6 record in last year's COVID-impacted season.
The Bears have been a finalist for the past four seasons - including reaching a preliminary final in 2019 - and Laird believes the side can remain a top-five calibre outfit in 2022.
"I feel we'll be around the mark again, for sure; we're obviously hoping we can improve on our position from last year," Laird said.
"We'll look to play a run-and-carry style of footy and we're really excited for the year ahead."
I feel we'll be around the mark again, for sure; we're obviously hoping we can improve on our position from last year- Justin Laird
Stalwart Andrew Gladman, who can impact the game at both ends, is playing on for another season, with Laird saying his experience will be vital for his first year as coach.
"Andy has played a lot of good footy and his experience is going to be really important," Laird said.
"He provides that older, mature head that the younger boys and I as a first-time coach can bounce ideas off and he's going to give great feedback."
By Kieran Iles
Coach: Stacee Burns.
Placing when season ended last year: Did not field an A-grade team.
Arrivals: Sharna Appleby, Georgia Harrison, Ella Hocking, Elyssa Hartland, Tash Whiteside, Leah McErvale, Paige Allison, Shayna Macartney.
First game: at Mitiamo (April 2).
There's a real buzz around the club as Bears Lagoon-Serpentine prepares for its first A-grade season since 2019.
Coming off a missed season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bears did not field a team in 2021.
But following an active pre-season on the recruiting front, the Bears will be back in 2022 and hopeful of making their mark.
Top on the list of new arrivals is former Huntly and YCW player and dual-code athlete Sharna Appleby, who will lend of plenty of experience and skill to a largely young Bears team.
She is joined by another former Huntly player in teenage goal shooter Georgia Harrison, giving the Bears a pair of dependable bookends.
Their A-grade squad has been further boosted by the arrival of Ella Hocking, who played with Mitiamo in 2016, Elyssa Hartland (formerly South Bendigo) and defender Tash Whiteside (Northern District Eagles, Darwin).
They will be joined by existing Bears Lagoon-Serpentine players Paris Stewart, who was one of the Bears' best performers in 2019 under former coach Sally Sheahan, Nakeya Mountjoy and 15-year-old Josie Walsh.
The Bears will be led by non-playing coach Stacee Burns, who was first appointed last season, but had to settle for coaching B-grade in the absence of an A-grade team.
Burns previously played more than 100 games with Eaglehawk before she was forced to give the game away due to an Achilles injury.
She also spent one season in the LVFNL, winning a B-grade premiership with Bridgewater.
Netball operations manager Leah Walsh said a bunch of new players, including plenty at under-17 level, and the capacity to fill all but one team (minis) this season had lifted the spirits of everyone involved in netball at Bears Lagoon-Serpentine.
It's a magnificent vibe," she said.
"We've got lots of recruits, not all of them A-grade. I'm not saying we will win a premiership by any means, but I am sure we will be a lot more competitive.
We've got lots of recruits, not all of them A-grade. I'm not saying we will win a premiership by any means, but I am sure we will be a lot more competitive- Leah Walsh
"Obviously A-grade will be more competitive for the simple fact we are competing this year, but hopefully we can earn some respect from the other clubs as well.
"We're pretty happy with the recruiting."
The Bears are busy honing their craft in practice matches, having played Eaglehawk two weeks ago, with games to follow against Newstead this Saturday and Sandhurst on Thursday week.
Walsh said coach Burns was rapt with how her team was gelling.
"The practice matches will certainly help," she said.
"Sharna has been the standout in pre-season, but we have Georgia and Nakeya down in goals and they are gelling really well, so it's looking promising down that end," she said.
"With Ella at wing attack, it's a pretty solid shooting end.
"Josie is jumping from under-15s to seniors, so that will be challenging for her. But she has the support of Sharna and Stacee has the faith in her."
The Bears face a tough reintroduction to A-grade netball having drawn league powerhouses Mitiamo in round one and Calivil United in round two, but with youth and enthusiasm on their side, will no doubt embrace the challenge.
A clash against Pyramid Hill awaits in round three following the Easter break.
ROUND 1 - April 2
v Mitiamo (a)
ROUND 2 - April 9
v Calivil United (h)
ROUND 3 - April 23
v Pyramid Hill (a)
ROUND 4 - April 30
v Bridgewater (h)
ROUND 5 - May 7
ROUND 6 - May 14
v Newbridge (h)
ROUND 7 - May 21
v Marong (a)
ROUND 8 - May 28
v Inglewood (h)
ROUND 9 - June 4
v Maiden Gully YCW (a)
ROUND 10 - June 18
v Mitiamo (h)
ROUND 11 - June 25
v Calivil United (a)
ROUND 12 - July 2
v Pyramid Hill (h)
ROUND 13 - July 9
v Bridgewater (a)
ROUND 14 - July 16
ROUND 15 - July 23
v Newbridge (a)
ROUND 16 - July 30
v Marong (h)
ROUND 17 - August 6
v Inglewood (a)
ROUND 18 - August 13
v Maiden Gully YCW (h)
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