By Luke West
NORTH Bendigo enters the 2022 Heathcote District league season again shaping up as one of the competition's top premiership contenders.
The Bulldogs have been able to sustain a high-level of consistency in which they have played in every grand final since 2014 for flags in 2015, 2016 and 2019 (there hasn't been a HDFNL grand final the past two years).
The Bulldogs have a familiar face back at the helm with Rob Bennett, who coached the 2015 and 2016 premierships, returning to the senior role after the club parted ways with Matt Dillon.
It has been an active off-season recruiting campaign for the Bulldogs, who have added 10 new players.
Joining the Bulldogs for 2022 are Marcus Rogers (utility), Beau Cross (half-back), Nick Waterson (wing), Sean Moyle (midfielder), Nathan Newlan (midfielder), Callum Tardrew (midfielder), Matt Gray (key forward) and Jesse Evans (forward), while Collingwood VFL captain Lachlan Tardrew has aligned himself to North Bendigo.
Callum Tardrew is a dual North Bendigo premiership player in 2016 and 2019 who is returning to the Bulldogs from Nagambie.
Waterson - a five-time best and fairest with Maiden Gully YCW - is also a former North Bendigo player, while Cross is joining the Bulldogs having been an assistant coach for Sandhurst last year and having represented Wimmera in inter-league.
Newlan is headed to the Bulldogs having won three Bendigo league reserves McDonald medals - two with Kangaroo Flat and one with South Bendigo - while forward Evans is another ex-North Bendigo player back at Atkins Street.
The addition of Gray from Maiden Gully YCW will give the Bulldogs another tall forward target alongside Dylan Klemm, who was the side's leading goalkicker last season with 34 and runner-up in the best and fairest.
"Our main focus with our recruiting has been on midfield depth, good ball users and a couple of key forwards," Bennett said.
Our main focus with our recruiting has been on midfield depth, good ball users and a couple of key forwards- Rob Bennett
"It's great to get some former players back at the club as well... a guy like Cal Tardrew, you know what you're going to get from him each week and he's in the best shape he's been in.
"And Nick Waterson is just a class act, so we're rapt he has returned as well.
"We're really happy with the recruits we've brought in, but we're also looking for improvement from a few of our guys who have been around the mark for a while now and we've also got some good young kids from the under-18s who have trained really well in the pre-season."
The Bulldogs have four departures with the losses of midfielders Koe Ngawati and Harry O'Meara, triple premiership player Tom Metherell to Cohuna and Bailey Wingrave.
The Bulldogs' list includes three triple premiership players with the club in reigning best and fairest Aarryn Craig, star swingman Jordan Ford and Ryan Alford, with Bennett confident the hunger to remain a force in the competition is still driving the Bulldogs.
"What made my decision easier to take the job back on is the hunger among the guys was still very evident," Bennett said.
"And you could see that from the very early training sessions before Christmas that the group is still really driven... you've only got to look at the blokes like Aarryn Craig, Jordan Ford, Timmy Devereaux, Ryan Alford and Shane Harris who have been setting the standards at training."
As well as an experienced playing group, one of the Bulldogs' strengths remains their phenomenal home ground advantage, with the club a remarkable 50-3 at Atkins Street since 2014.
The Bulldogs will play the opening game of the HDFNL season against Heathcote at home on April 2.
By Kieran Iles
Coach: Shellie Davies.
Placing when season ended last year: Sixth.
Arrivals: Kysha Dowling, Darcy Scott, Morgan O'Meara, Lauren Chugg, Tayla Spedding, Ella Dobell.
Departures: Lara Daly, Rhiana Broadbent, Meg McGlone.
First game: v Heathcote (April 2).
SHELLIE Davies looks back on her stint as a player at North Bendigo more than a decade ago with great fondness.
She hopes to one day be able to look back on her second stint at Atkins Street - this time as the Bulldogs' A-grade netball coach - with even more affection.
Davies, who won the HDFNL league's A-grade best and fairest as a Bulldogs player in 2010, could not be more excited to be back and has fully embraced the challenge of attempting to lift the club back into finals.
The Bulldogs have not played finals since 2016, when they were coached by their 2014 premiership leader Tamara Gilchrist, who has since gone on to win three flags (2017 to 2019) at Sandhurst.
While they will enter the season without a few key players from last year, particularly at the defensive end of the court, the Bulldogs again look well placed to challenge for a spot in the five.
They finished last year with a 6-6 record, only one win behind Huntly (7-6).
North Bendigo certainly had its chances to put an end to its finals drought.
A three-goal loss early in the season against White Hills, when the Bulldogs led during the third quarter proved costly, as did a late-season loss at Huntly, which ultimately put the Hawks one win ahead on the ladder.
Davies could not be more impressed with the application shown by her players during the pre-season.
"There is a really good vibe around the place, the girls have worked incredibly hard," she said.
"There's been a great turnout during the pre-season, the girls are feeling really good.
There's been a great turnout during the pre-season, the girls are feeling really good- Shellie Davies
"They were itching to get on the court for practice matches, just to see everything they have done and worked for put into gameplay."
A solid schedule of practice matches for the Bulldogs will eventually include all of Marong, Maiden Gully YCW, Golden Square, and Mitiamo.
The Bulldogs will have a testing start to the season, playing expected improvers Heathcote first-up before a trio of games against last year's top three teams, starting with Colbinabbin, Elmore and then White Hills.
"We'll definitely have to be ready for that, but it will absolutely let us know where we are at and what we need to work on," Davies said.
"We'll welcome the test."
Davies, who has held several coaching roles over the past decade, most recently in 2019, said she was relishing being back on the sidelines and in charge of a young and enthusiastic team.
"It's just a breath of fresh air, the vibe at the club is awesome," she said.
"They are a lovely bunch of girls and they work so hard.
"They've been incredibly welcoming."
Newcomers to the club include Kysha Dowling, Darcy Scott, Morgan O'Meara and Lauren Chugg, while Davies expects plenty of opportunities to flow to juniors Tayla Spedding and Ella Dobell.
The Bulldogs will be tested in defence, with Meg McGlone now living in Melbourne and Rhiana Broadbent, who has signed with White Hills, both gone from last year's team, as is former coach Lara Daly (also at White Hills).
The cause for cheer at Atkins Street will be improvements to the netball facilities, with the courts being resurfaced and a new retainer wall erected at the end of the courts.
"Hopefully there are new change rooms in the future and a few more improvements," Davies said.
But for now, the Bulldogs' new coach will be hoping for some improvement from within the playing group as they strive to rise from their 2021 finishing position of sixth.
SEASON OPENER - April 2
v Heathcote (h)
ROUND 1 - April 9
v Colbinabbin (a)
ROUND 2 - April 16
v Elmore (h)
ROUND 3 - April 23
v White Hills (a)
ROUND 4 - April 30
ROUND 5 - May 7
v Leitchville-Gunbower (a)
ROUND 6 - May 14
v Huntly (h)
ROUND 7 - May 21
v LBU (a)
ROUND 8 - May 28
v Mount Pleasant (h)
ROUND 9 - June 4
ROUND 10 - June 11
v Colbinabbin (h)
ROUND 11 - June 18
v Elmore (a)
ROUND 12 - June 25
v White Hills (h)
ROUND 13 - July 2
v Heathcote (a)
ROUND 14 - July 9
v Leitchville-Gunbower (h)
ROUND 15 - July 16
v Huntly (a)
ROUND 16 - July 23
v LBU (h)
ROUND 17 - July 30
v Mount Pleasant (a)
ROUND 18 - August 6
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