THE Bendigo Strikers have gained critical early momentum and showed why they belong in the Victorian Netball League with a convincing victory in their first official championship practice match at Red Energy Arena on Saturday.
Led by standout performances at opposite ends of the court by defensive star Ruby Turner and goal shooter Milly Brock, the Strikers toppled Boroondara Express 47-41 in a high-calibre shootout in front of a huge crowd in Bendigo.
It was just the result and crowd attendance the Strikers - one of three new clubs in the state's premier netball competition this season alongside the Melton-based Western Warriors and Gippsland Stars - were looking for as they continue the build up to their main season debut against the Southern Saints on March 6.
The Strikers, who were coached by the club's director of coaching Carol Cathcart in the absence of Tracey Brereton, led for the bulk of the contest, including by one goal at half time and by three at the final change of end.
While the Express, who were runners-up to City West Falcons last season, rallied early in the final term to level the scores at 36-apiece, the Strikers quickly found their composure and were never headed on their way to a six-goal victory.
It was a dream start to VNL championship life for the Strikers, albeit there was still plenty to work on ahead of the season proper, according to Cathcart.
"There is a lot of learning still going on at the moment - communication about where people move and how they move and how we are going to work together," she said.
"Our long court, we got a lot of ball, but we threw a lot of ball away, so that will be something we work on this week before we have our practice matches against the Hawks next week.
"It's important that when we get an intercept that we get through the court for a shot. We weren't very efficient with that today."
While there were areas for improvement, there were just as many, if not more, positives to flow from a resilient win over class opposition, highlighted by a strong first-half for the Express by Melbourne Vixens training partner and Bendigonian Ruby Barkmeyer.
"They (the Express) are a great team and for us to be able to get out there the first time and match them was great," Cathcart said.
"The girls were really nervous playing in front of their home crowd and for the first time - but they settled down fairly early.
"But from here it's all about building. This was the start, but we've got a lot of work to do.
"There are some people in the team that haven't played a lot together at all, especially in our attack end. Those girls come from all over the place.
"So, it's going to take a while to gel, but it was a great effort to start off with."
Quick to make an impact was goal shooter Brock, who boasts previous VNL experience with Ariels.
A star in Tongala's Murray league A-grade premiership last season, she was a thorn in the side of the Express' defenders all game with her strength and smarts and lethal accuracy.
Also poised for big seasons with the Strikers and their BFNL club Sandhurst, Turner and Charlotte Sexton were keys to a spectacular defensive effort following massive pre-seasons.
But undoubtedly the biggest takeaway from the game for the Strikers was momentum.
"What it did show is that we deserve to be in the competition and we have really great talent in this area and it's an opportunity for them to come together and build from our own community and region, instead of having to do the long drive down to Melbourne just to train and play," Cathcart said.
"We had some absolutely great passages of play.
"The ball was really slick and it moved down the court really well, or we set up in defence and took the intercepts.
"It's now about being more consistent with that."
The Strikers will regain versatile midcourter Ashley Ryan and wing defence Milly Wicks for next week's matches against the Hawks after both missed Saturday's clash due to prior commitments.
The fledgling club will play three home games in Bendigo this season - against the Express on April 28, Geelong Cougars on May 19 and Southern Saints in June 2.
All three games are Sunday fixtures.
What it did show is that we deserve to be in the competition and we have really great talent in this area- Carol Cathcart