After not playing two full seasons of footy in 2020 and 2021, you would understand if the grind of a long season in 2022 took its toll on the Bendigo Pioneers.
Coach Danny O'Bree did fear what affects the first post-COVID season would have on his younglist, but he's been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm displayed by his players.
"About six weeks ago we went through a period where we had a drop in standards, our training was questionable and we weren't as competitive,'' O'Bree said.
"This week I've had a lot of players reach out to me and say that was our best training of the year.
"We're starting to build towards the back end of the year and the players are excited that we have a few games left.
"We're starting to get our best team back together and we have a lot to play for in our minimum three games remaining.
"If we can build some momentum into our wildcard final, we feel as though we can be more than competitive against any team in the competition."
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The Pioneers face one of the toughest challenges in the NAB League on Sunday when they travel to Melbourne to play the Dandenong Stingrays.
"Dandenong taught us a lesson last year and really showed our program what NAB League is all about,'' O'Bree said.
"They were bigger, stronger and quicker. We were competitive against them earlier this year where we had opportunities to win.
"We're hoping to keep learning from programs like Dandenong's, so that we can make our program better."
National under-18 championship players Jed Brereton and Jason Gillbee return to the Pioneers' side this week.
The Pioneers will unveil two more first-gamers on Sunday - Strathfieldsaye's Blake McGregor and Donald's Hayden Geddes.
Dandenong is third on the ladder with an 8-3 record, while the Pioneers are 12th with two wins, one draw and eigh defeats.
Pioneers' squad to play Dandenong at Shepley Oval from 11.45am on Sunday:
B: H. Geddes, N. Dignan, H. Kelly.
Hb: H. Gallagher, S. Deola, J. Gillbee.
C: B. Cain, B. Cameron, S. McKay.
Hf: M. Kiraly, W. Burke, C. Hillier.
F: S. Morris, J. Brereton, H. Reid.
R: J. Nihill, M. Gordon, O. Poole.
Inter: S. O'Shannesy, B. McGregor, C. Anderson, O. Smartt, RJ. Watson.
Emerg: L. Wright, T. Travaliga, J. McMahon.
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