AFTER a bright pre-season, a strengthened South Bendigo will enter round one confident it can mix it with the best the BFNL competition has to offer.
The Bloods, who open their 2022 campaign against Golden Square at the QEO, made plenty of significant moves over the off-season, aimed at bridging the gap between themselves and the league's powerhouses.
Three on-court seasons under former Kangaroo Flat dual-premiership coach Jannelle Hobbs have delivered massive improvement.
But for all those gains, the Bloods have been unable to find a way past the likes of Sandhurst, Kangaroo Flat and Gisborne.
That will be a clear goal this season.
"Probably one of our more minor goals is to definitely make that top three and beat some of those top three teams," said Bloods joint captain and defensive mainstay Steph Goode.
"I feel we have the team now to do that.
"But obviously we want a premiership and we want to go all the way.
"We've been building each year and if not for COVID I think we might have got there a bit quicker, but now we have had some time to recruit and develop some younger players, hopefully, this is the year."
Much of the optimism at South Bendigo surrounds the arrivals of some key recruits headed by VNL wing attack Chloe Gray and former Goulburn Valley league goal shooter Olivia Mason, who will join class youngster Chloe Langley in the circle.
The pairing of Gray with last year's skipper and best and fairest runner-up Keiarah Brooks gives the Bloods one of the most dynamic midcourts in the competition.
Personally exciting for Goode and equally so for the squad is the arrival of six-time A-grade premiership star Alicia McGlashan from Kangaroo Flat.
The former Roos star, who has played in 10 A-grade grand finals in total, adds much-needed experience and composure to a largely young Bloods line-up.
Her team-mates are hoping some of that finals experience will rub off.
"She has been just a wealth of knowledge and experience down in the defence end," Goode said.
"Hopefully she can bring us along for the ride deep into finals.
"It's super-exciting to get going. Even though we played a few games last year, it seems like it's been really drawn out the last couple of seasons."
At Wade Street, Golden Square is aiming to orchestrate a move of its own back up the ladder after a couple of leaner seasons.
The Bulldogs will start with plenty of fresh faces of their own, with former Newbridge premiership star Jane Reid making the move across from the LVFNL to line up at goal shooter.
She will be joined in the circle by another recruit in former Shepparton goaler Laura Scott, with Maddie Alvino (Mildura Imperials) coming into the midcourt, and Lucy Palmer (Cohuna) and Lana Marsh (Rochester) set to bolster the defence.
Reappointed captain Maddy Keighran said the high number of new players meant the Bulldogs would be starting the season with plenty of enthusiasm.
"There's only three or four of us left from last season, so it will be interesting to see how we team together," she said.
"Getting Jane Reid in at goal shooter gives us a good tall, which is something we really missed last year.
"Laura Scott, who will also be in goals, is quite tall too, so we look to have that end of the court covered."
While the win-loss record last season read just 2-8, there is no doubt the Bulldogs made plenty of strides as the season progressed
Keighran said the goal and challenge was to take another few steps forward.
"We are definitely younger and I guess that comes with pros and cons," she said.
"Pre-season was good. We are young and we are fit and keen to learn and build on what we've got. That will hold us in good stead for the year.
"I feel we'll get a few more wins on the board this year. Having that height in goals is something we really missed last year."
Players returning from last year's A-grade line-up are Keighran, Abbey Clohesy and Cass Humphrey.
In other games, Castlemaine makes its much-anticipated return to A-grade against Kyneton, Strathfieldsaye hosts Eaglehawk, and Gisborne clashes with Sandhurst.
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