The BFNL question most often asked of Bendigo Advertiser footy reporters during the off-season "is Strathfieldsaye still the team to beat?"
The answer: "yes".
The Storm's off-season wasn't busy in terms of recruiting largely because the club doesn't need to waste time and/or money on a heavy recruiting campaign.
The quality and quantity of young players coming through the ranks means the Storm can replenish their stocks from within.
"We're backing our youth again. We're hoping to continue the development of our group,'' Storm co-coach Darryl Wilson said.
"We'll back the group in. We haven't lost a lot and we're happy with what we've added and what we've kept."
Premiership players Bailey Henderson and Kell Smith have departed, while the Storm has added former Birchip-Watchem and Leitchville-Gunbower midfielder/defender Brady Hore and Bridgewater duo Bo Alexander (midfielder) and Joe Mayes (defender).
Premiership ruckman Michael Pilcher also returns to Tannery Lane to provide support to developing young ruck big Tim Hosking.
A quartet of classy young players add depth to the senior group.
Riley Wilson is back after missing all of 2021 because of a knee reconstruction, while Pioneers' graduates Caleb Ernst, Bode Stevens and Tom Bennett could all play senior footy round one.
Stevens, the nephew of North Melbourne champion Anthony Stevens, is on the Kangaroos' VFL list but is aligned to the Storm.
Mitch Hallinan remains on the Pioneers' list as a 19-year-old, but is expected to play senior footy for the Storm at times.
Ernst, potentially, will be critical to the Storm's structure, with centre half-forward Cooper Jones on Geelong's VFL list.
Jones played for the Cats in round one of the VFL and might not see much BFNL action this year.
"Cooper played with Geelong last Saturday and played well,'' Wilson said.
"Caleb Ernst is full-time with us this year and he's a ripper. He could step in and play a similar role to what Cooper played."
If the Storm are going to be vulnerable it will be early in the season.
They face Eaglehawk, Sandhurst and Kyneton in the first three rounds and Hore (knee) will have a delayed start, while four key Storm players have had interrupted preparations because of cricket.
"We had Cal McCarty, Daniel Clohesy, Jack Neylon and James Schischka all played in cricket grand finals last week, so we haven't seen them much,'' Wilson said.
"They're talking about playing round one, but we'll see how that goes. We know they look after themselves well."
McCarty and Clohesy are two of the Storm's midfield bulls, while Neylon has played most of his footy down back, but Wilson indicated he's likely to get more midfield time this season.
Schischka's best footy last year was in defence where his intercept marking was a highlight.
While the Storm have plenty of young talent to develop, the reigning premiers still have some of the best top-end talent in the competition as well.
Kallen Geary remains pound for pound one of the best five players in the competition, goalkicking machine Lachlan Sharp will still be a thorn in the defence of all nine rivals, co-coach Shannon Geary is coming off one of his best seasons in the BFNL and Jake Moorhead is an elite midfielder.
Naming only four is probably offensive to half a dozen others.
The bottom line is it's mighty hard to find a chink in the Storm armour.
Until proven otherwise, the Storm are the team to beat in 2022.
Coach: Steph Freemantle.
Placing when season ended last year: Sixth.
Arrivals: Emmie Banfield, Keeley Jones, Eve Crowe, Brylee Wilson, Lucy Spalding.
Departures: Ellie Lothian.
Last A-grade flag: Never won an A-grade flag.
Summary: Strathfieldsaye coach Steph Freemantle is hoping her side can build on a positive finish to last season.
By factoring in some impressive recruits, the return of some injured stars and expected natural improvement from some of the Storm's young guns, there's every chance she will get her wish.
A pair of late season wins in 2021 - one over finals-bound Eaglehawk and the other over Maryborough - unexpectedly catapulted the Storm into finals calculations when the BFNL announced its intention to stage a six-team finals series in response to a COVID-interrupted home and away season.
They were ready to ride their luck into an elimination final showdown against third-placed Gisborne before the season was eventually called off.
While a 3-8 season could easily have petered out, a surprise and likely never to be repeated chance to contest finals from sixth spot instead sent the Storm into the off-season on a high.
A delighted Freemantle says the Storm has been able to maintain that enthusiasm during the pre-season.
She said plenty of that was due to the arrival of some exciting young new talent, headed by former Sandhurst 17-and-under premiership stars Keeley Jones and Emmie Banfield.
The pair had been playing in the Dragons' A-reserve team, but have headed to Strathfieldsaye in search of more opportunities.
"Emmie will slot nicely into our defensive end, she will add quite a bit of height which is exciting,' Freemantle said.
"Keeley will slot into the wing attack and goaler position, depending on where we need her.
"We also have a couple of new uni girls, Eve Crowe from Swan Hill way and Brylee Wilson, who is from Wangaratta (Rovers).
"We'll slot them in as well. They are super fit and will add some real depth to our team."
In a further boost for the club, Lucy Spalding has returned to the Storm and will bolster the A-reserve team and provide valuable experience and smarts around the playing group.
"From a leadership point of view, having someone like her around the club is amazing," Freemantle said.
"For the younger girls to benefit from her advice and coaching is pretty special."
A swag of exciting arrivals will add to last year's core of goal shooter Eliza Hynes, star young goal attack Ava Hamilton, defender Makayle Dole and coach Freemantle.
Playing her first season of A-grade, Hamilton stamped herself as one of the league's brightest young prospects and will only get better with more senior netball under her belt.
Hopes are high the Storm will regain versatile midcourter and goaler Caitlyn Hamilton, who is recovering from a knee injury, midway through the season.
The departures are headed by midcourter Ellie Lothian, who has moved to Darwin, while Jackie Geary has opted to play A-reserve due to family commitments.
Freemantle, who is coming off back-to-back best and fairest awards in 2019 and 2021, is confident of plenty of improvement in her second season at the helm, particularly given the bright ending to last year.
"We finished a lot better than we started - a fair bit of that was us just taking time to get used to each other," she said.
"Obviously, the midcourt will have changed a fair bit from last year, but we are excited about where we are headed.
"It will be interesting to see what Castlemaine's return will bring and Gisborne has gotten stronger and of course there's always Sandhurst and Kangaroo Flat to contend with.
"Hopefully we can be that bit more competitive and make a move up."
The Storm, who have played practice matches against HDFNL clubs White Hills and Mount Pleasant, will meet Eaglehawk in round one, followed by Sandhurst and Kyneton in rounds two and three, before their first clash with Castlemaine.
ROUND 1 - April 9
v Eaglehawk (h)
ROUND 2 - April 15
v Sandhurst (a)
ROUND 3 - April 23
v Kyneton (h)
ROUND 4 - April 30
v Castlemaine (a)
ROUND 5 - May 7
v Gisborne (h)
ROUND 6 - May 14
v Maryborough (h)
ROUND 7 - May 28
v South Bendigo (a)
ROUND 8 - June 4
v Kangaroo Flat (h)
ROUND 9 - June 11
v Golden Square (a)
ROUND 10 - June 18
v Eaglehawk (h)
ROUND 11 - June 25
v Sandhurst (h)
ROUND 12 - July 9
v Kyneton (a)
ROUND 13 - July 16
v Castlemaine (h)
ROUND 14 - July 23
v Gisborne (a)
ROUND 15 - July 30
v Maryborough (a)
ROUND 16 - August 6
v South Bendigo (h)
ROUND 17 - August 13
v Kangaroo Flat (a)
ROUND 18 - August 20
v Golden Square (h)
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