By Luke West
MARONG has laid the foundation for what should be a strong tilt at finally breaking the club's premiership drought in the Loddon Valley league this year.
The Panthers haven't won a senior flag since 1989, but showed last season under first-year coach Linton Jacobs that the nucleus is there for Marong to be a competition force this season.
COVID community sport restrictions last year cost the Panthers - who had finished second on the ladder with a 10-2 record - the chance of a premiership push when the season was called off before the finals could get under way.
"Last year certainly wasn't a write-off and has given us a good platform going into this year," Jacobs said.
"If you compare to this time last year, we are way ahead in terms of gameplan and building relationships, so I feel like we're in a good position going into round one.
"Until you've played everyone you don't get a real good feel of where you fit, but we'll be hoping to be in that top three again and get a crack at a finals series."
Until you've played everyone you don't get a real good feel of where you fit, but we'll be hoping to be in that top three again and get a crack at a finals series.- Linton Jacobs
When looking at the Panthers side it's easy to be immediately drawn to the firepower in the front half.
Last year's imposing mid-season recruit Brandyn Grenfell kicked 39 goals in just six games and promises to give all opposition coaches match-up headaches.
And with Kain Robins, Adrian Pappin and Simon Weekley also roaming inside 50 as key targets, the Panthers are stacked with goalkicking power.
"Our forward line worked really well in the second half of last year and the key is they are all experienced players who know how to move and make it work," Jacobs said.
"Brandyn has been up in Darwin playing footy and is going to be in pretty good nick compared to what he was last year and Kain is moving as well as I've seen him over the past few years."
The Panthers - who last year twice held their opposition goal-less - have added five recruits into what's an already talented list.
Trent Fischer, who has previously played with Grenfell at Seymour, and Matt Willox will slot into the backline, while Ryley Taylor (mid/forward), who was on the Bendigo Pioneers' list last year, Lachie Lee (wing) and Brodie Hartland from Sandhurst have also joined Marong.
Departures are key defender Harry Graham, Aron Morrish, Chris Ling and crafty forward Dylan Cuttriss.
"We haven't turned over too many players, which is really important in terms of stability," Jacobs said.
"We still think we've got a lot of improvement in us this year. Our ball-use going forward at times last year could have been better and you can always tune up defensively.
"And we've got some work to do around stoppages, too, so there's plenty to improve on for us.
"We've got a lot of kids coming up from the under-18s as well and we think they'll get better as the year goes on."
The Panthers begin their season under lights against Maiden Gully YCW at Marist College before a stretch of three big games against Bridgewater, Mitiamo and Pyramid Hill.
By Kieran Iles
Coach: Bianca Garton.
Placing when season ended last year: Fourth.
Arrivals: Bridget Jacobs, Bridget Willox, Tamera Gribben, Kate Horne.
First game: at Maiden Gully YCW (April 2).
Expect Marong to have plenty of motivation to do well and build on some outstanding improvement from last season when the 2022 season gets underway on April 2.
The Panthers stamped themselves as one of the competition's biggest improvers in 2021 and were set to snap a 10-year finals drought until COVID intervened and finals were cancelled.
Fifth or sixth for much of the year, the Panthers had worked themselves into fourth position in time for finals to set up an elimination final clash against Bridgewater.
That finals never happened and the drought - at least physically - went unbroken is certain to provide coach Bianca Garton and her strengthened squad with plenty of extra incentive.
"It does hurt (finals not happening), but it has put a fire in the girls' bellies because they were really disappointed," she said.
"The build-up and excitement were amazing, but to not get to play, it was so disappointing.
"But the girls have come back with a real hunger and determination to be back in the top five."
Encouragingly, the Panthers have lost no one from last year's A-grade team and have gained four A-B squad players, headed by goal attack Bridget Willox (Tyntynder), who will partner sharpshooter Brittany Hercus in the circle, Bridget Jacobs, Tamera Gribben and Kate Horne.
That will necessitate some tough decisions for Garton in finalising her A-grade team, albeit she admits it's a great position to be in.
A bonus in the second half of the season should be the return of Kimberley Dalton, who injured her ACL during the 2021 season, and sadly would have missed finals had they gone ahead.
Garton is confident the Panthers can take another step in their improvement and development and again challenge for finals.
"Last year was a real confidence-boosting year," she said.
"That was the biggest challenge for me, getting it into the girls' heads that we can win games and really test other teams.
"Once we got a few wins under the belt that belief came and we really started to play good netball and gel.
"Hopefully we can pick up from where we left off."
Marong will again possess plenty of strength across the court, particularly in the midcourt, with coach Garton, who spent much of 2022 at goal attack, making the move back to join Kirsty Hamilton and Brittany Shannon, who enjoyed a solid first season in red, blue and yellow, after crossing from North Bendigo.
A tight and capable defence will be led by Tracey O'Donnell, whose impact when she hit the court was immense, after crossing from Newbridge.
The Panthers should be well prepared having played practice matches against HDFNL clubs North Bendigo and Heathcote and BFNL club Eaglehawk during the pre-season.
They will get an outstanding first-up gauge of where they stand by playing Maiden Gully YCW in their opening game.
Like the Panthers, the Eagles have lost none of last year's A-grade players and are again shaping as a genuine premiership contender.
Marong won seven of 12 games played last season, with the Panthers' best win coming in round one against Calivil United, breaking a long drought against the Demons at the top level.
ROUND 1 - April 2
v Maiden Gully YCW (a)
ROUND 2 - April 9
v Bridgewater (h)
ROUND 3 - April 23
v Mitiamo (a)
ROUND 4 - April 30
v Pyramid Hill (h)
ROUND 5 - May 7
v Newbridge (a)
ROUND 6 - May 14
v Inglewood (a)
ROUND 7 - May 21
v Bears Lagoon-Serpentine (h)
ROUND 8 - May 28
v Calivil United (a)
ROUND 9 - June 4
ROUND 10 - June 18
v Maiden Gully YCW (h)
ROUND 11 - June 25
v Bridgewater (a)
ROUND 12 - July 2
v Mitiamo (h)
ROUND 13 - July 9
v Pyramid Hill (a)
ROUND 14 - July 16
v Newbridge (h)
ROUND 15 - July 23
v Inglewood (h)
ROUND 16 - July 30
v Bears Lagoon-Serpentine (a)
ROUND 17 - August 6
v Calivil United (h)
ROUND 18 - August 13
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