By Luke West
IT'S very much a case of unfinished business for Lockington-Bamawm United in the Heathcote District league this season after the Cats had to settle for the tag as "minor premiers" last year.
As expected, the Cats were the standout team of last year - they were undefeated with an average winning margin of 92 points - but the shutdown of the season before the finals could start cost LBU the chance of vieing for the flag they would have been short odds to win.
Again, the Cats shape as the team to beat this season under second-year coach Brodie Collins.
Although the Cats remain stacked with talent all over the ground, they have lost several key players from last year, including centre half-forward Patrick Gardiner, defender Tom Holman and the McPhee brothers - Ben and James.
Ben McPhee has moved to Port Douglas, James McPhee has headed back to Rochester, Holman has returned to Kyabram and Gardiner has studying international law in Belgium.
Coming into the club are Riley McIvor from Eaglehawk and Charlie Hinks, who is returning to the Cats after playing last year with Macorna.
McIvor is joining the Cats having played more than 100 senior games with Eaglehawk and is a 2018 Hawks' premiership player.
"Riley is a good recruit for us; he has a lot of experience and is a very good player who we can have rolling through a lot of areas," Collins said.
With utility McIvor's arrival the Cats will have four 2018 Eaglehawk premiership players on their list this year, along with Brodie and Jesse Collins and Lachlan Atherton.
"We haven't gone out and recruited too heavily because I really want to reward the guys who have sacrificed and put in the work over what has obviously been a tough past couple of years," Collins said.
"And there's four really good young kids coming through who I want to be able to give opportunities to this year.
"Young Coby Cox was one of our under-18s captains last year and he's a player with serious class... he's as smooth a mover as I've seen on a footy field with serious upside.
"Young Eddie Brentnall is still playing thirds and Cooper Mitchell and Jake Rorke are a few of the other boys that I want to give opportunities to.
"And we've also been able to pick up quite a few depth players, so while we have certainly lost some quality in terms of the players who have gone, our quantity of numbers has gone up."
While the Cats do again loom as one of the power sides and top flag contenders, by Collins' own admission he doesn't expect the side to dominate to the same level it did last year, which was evident in LBU's monster percentage of 338.9 and five of its 12 wins by more than 120 points.
"My theory is I don't think we'll be winning games by an average margin of 80 or 90 points like last year... it might be more like 30 or 40 points," Collins said.
My theory is I don't think we'll be winning games by an average margin of 80 or 90 points like last year... it might be more like 30 or 40 points- Brodie Collins
"I think we'll still be a very good side; at the moment it's just about figuring out how this team fits together and working the kids into it because they deserve a crack.
"The midfield will look a bit different; the backline will look a bit different and so will the forward line.
"I know our best is still as good, if not better, than most in the competition, but there are some very good sides that are coming hard.
"We've got a hungry group that after the past couple of years wants to feel like it's achieved something after last year got ripped out from under us at the end and then no season the year before... it felt a bit like we'd done two pre-seasons for nothing."
The Cats enter the season, which starts against White Hills, with the reigning Cheatley medallist in ruckman Tyler Phillips.
By Kieran Iles
Coach: Jessie Hardess.
Placing when season ended last year: Ninth.
Arrivals: Chelsea Hicks, Maddy Atherton.
Departures: Michelle McIntosh, Jemma McNair, Amee Hardess, Shellyn Hobbs.
First game: at White Hills (April 9).
Following a succession of coaches over the last half a dozen years, Lockington-Bamawm United will enter the season with the same coach at the helm as the previous year for the first time in a while.
After leading the Cats for the first time in 2021, Jessie Hardess returns in the top job, this time as a playing coach in a welcome boost to the playing stocks.
Hardess previously won the league's A-reserve best and fairest in 2013 as a teenager before stepping up to play A-grade for the Cats the following season.
While she has not played for 'a few seasons', save for a couple of lower grade games last year, the now playing coach is looking forward to stepping back out on court in the navy and white.
Pleasingly, her own commitment to being prepared and getting fit has been matched by the Cats playing group.
"I've been hammering pre-season this year - we've been training since about November," Hardess said.
"Having decided to play again, I needed to get fit, so I thought if I am going to be down at the courts, I might as well open it up for everyone else to come along.
"We've had a real crack. Besides that, it will be great to get some gameplay in after a very interrupted year last year."
The Cats have attracted a pair of new young and enthusiastic A-graders in Chelsea Hicks, from Calivil United, and Maddy Atherton, from Eaglehawk.
Hicks, who is working in the region, will bolster the defence, while Atherton is described by Hardess as 'a really nice and handy midcourter'.
"They are two nice young players, but besides those two, we have heaps of new girls at the club, a lot who have come from Melbourne," she said.
"They've heard that we are a nice family club, so that's a bit of a boost to the (club's) ego. And our juniors numbers are huge this year.
"Heaps of new faces is great for the club - it should be an exciting season."
LBU will have a reasonably new look at A-grade level with Jemma McNair and Michelle McIntosh among the outs and Shellyn Hobbs taking a break.
Tragically, the club and community lost coach Hardess' younger sister Amee following a vehicle crash last September.
"That's left a bit of a hole at the club," Hardess said.
"But her best friend was Kiarra Duncan, our A-grade runner-up best and fairest, and she's coming back from last year."
"We've also got Abi Sergienko and Jesie Milligan, who was our best and fairest, back, which is pleasing."
Milligan polled 29 votes to claim the best and fairest from Duncan on 24 and Amee Hardess on 19
One player to look out for is last season's under-17s goaler Chelsea Jones, the sister of A-grader Sarah, who, according to Hardess, 'is showing real promise'.
While 2021 was very much a rebuilding and 'back-to-basics' year for the Cats and about restoring club culture, Hardess is keen to see the club put a few wins on the board this season.
"I feel if we keep up this current work rate and enthusiasm, we are a real shot at putting up some wins," she said.
"We're still developing."
The Cats open their season on April 9 against league powerhouse White Hills.
ROUND 1 - April 9
v White Hills (a)
ROUND 2 - April 16
v Heathcote (h)
ROUND 3 - April 23
v Leitchville-Gunbower (a)
ROUND 4 - April 30
v Huntly (h)
ROUND 5 - May 7
ROUND 6 - May 14
v Mount Pleasant (a)
ROUND 7 - May 21
v North Bendigo (h)
ROUND 8 - May 28
v Colbinabbin (a)
ROUND 9 - June 4
v Elmore (h)
ROUND 10 - June 11
v White Hills (h)
ROUND 11 - June 18
v Heathcote (a)
ROUND 12 - June 25
v Leitchville-Gunbower (h)
ROUND 13 - July 2
v Huntly (a)
ROUND 14 - July 9
ROUND 15 - July 16
v Mount Pleasant (h)
ROUND 16 - July 23
v North Bendigo (a)
ROUND 17 - July 30
v Colbinabbin (h)
ROUND 18 - August 6
v Elmore (a)
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