VICTORIA Country hockey regular Tracey Johnson is confident this year's squad has what it takes to challenge the might of Queensland as the Australian Country Challenge makes its welcome return in Western Australia this week.
Johnson is as qualified as anyone to assess Victoria Country's chances at the August 6 to 13 tournament in Albany, which will bring together the best players from Australia's regional hockey associations.
The star forward is lining up in her seventh national country championships and was a member of Victoria Country's 2015 championship-winning team.
A 17-player squad is brimming with Bendigo region content, with Johnson joined by fellow North West Lightning players Chelsie Hird, Jorgie Wright, Kari Gulson, Hayley McNaughton, Naomi Hunter and goalkeeper Jess Maher.
Victoria Country, coached by Tammy Hansford, will be aiming to find a way past Queensland, which has dominated the championships by winning four of the past six titles, including the last three straight (2017-19), and fellow powerhouse New South Wales, which last won in 2016.
Johnson said the 2015 championship win in Wollongong remained the highlight of her time in the Victorian Country squad and she would love to experience that feeling again in Albany.
"I'm sure we can do it again," she said.
"This team is very attacking and very quick and our defensive unit is very tight.
"I feel we have both ends of the pitch covered and we are linking up very well, even though we haven't played together a lot."
While the wider team may not have combined a lot, particularly in view of the past two championships having been cancelled due to COVID-19, there is still a strong level of connectedness through club links.
This is no more evident than in the seven members of the squad who play together for the Women's Vic League 1's North West Lightning.
"There's always been a good showing from this region, so I definitely think that helps," said Johnson, whose first nationals tournament was also in Western Australia, at Geraldton in 2013.
"It especially helps the young girls who are new to the squad.
"It's certainly been a strong standard of hockey in central Victoria over the years - it's been great to see and be a part of."
The Lightning is well-placed, sitting in third position on the ladder behind Geelong Sharks and Monash University with three rounds to play.
Their 8-3-4 record was boosted by a convincing 8-1 victory last Saturday over Werribee, with Johnson, who has seven goals in 10 matches this season, Hunter, Gulson and captain Wright all contributing to the strong scoreline with a goal apiece.
Johnson, who missed the 2019 Australian Country Challenge while overseas, is both rapt to be back in the navy blue and white again and to see the tournament return after it was cancelled just weeks out from the event last year.
"I'm so excited to come back and get another go," she said.
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"I think after last year being cancelled and not having it the year before, everyone is really pumped."
Johnson would not trade anything for the experiences she has enjoyed at past Australian Country Challenge events.
"I love that there is a high-standard comp for country players - it's not every day country players get that opportunity," she said.
"It's a real opportunity for the girls to take a step up.
"And it's also fun."
The 2022 Challenge will consist of 12 teams (six men's and six women's teams) from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Australian Defence Force.
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