By Colin MacGillivray
KILMORE senior football coach Nathan Phillips says it ‘feels like forever’ since the 2021 Northern Football Netball League season was ended prematurely by COVID-19 restrictions, but the Blues are ready to make up for lost time when the 2022 season kicks off on Saturday.
Kilmore expects to be remain among the division three premiership contenders this season after finishing third on the ladder with a 9-3 record and a percentage of nearly 200 last year.
Phillips said a strong midfield rotation of division three best and fairest winner Chris Ryall, club best and fairest Chris Barton and former three-time club best and fairest Leigh Irons would return, giving the Blues a strong foundation to build upon.
He said most of last season’s senior list had re-signed, with only Matt Swindells opting to retire and young big man Caden Fitzpatrick under a cloud with a back injury.
Recruits Hayden Phillips and James Atkinson, from the Kyabram District and Heathcote District leagues respectively, would bolster the team.
Atkinson will fill Fitzpatrick’s role from last year backing up Mick McCulloch in the ruck, while Phillips will provide toughness across the half-back line and in the midfield.
Nathan Phillips said he expected to field one of the strongest onball brigades in the division this season.
“I think Mick McCulloch was very underrated last year. I thought he was up there in the best two or three ruckmen in the competition,” he said.
“He gave us first use and he uses the footy better than anyone else in the ruck in our division.
“James is a big body and more of a crash-and-bash sort of guy and a handball-first ruckman, but we think they both should be able to work well together.
“Chriso [Ryall] is a star, Barto [Barton] has raised the bar with his training standards and Leigh [Irons] has won three best and fairests and came runner up last year at club level. They’re fantastic guys to have.
“Other guys like Mick Marrett and Chris Jackson who are a touch younger running through our midfield also stepped up and learned a lot from them.
“Mick has gotten a lot fitter over the off-season and Jacko the same, so we think our midfield has the potential to go to another level again.”
Phillips said his team would be fit and ready for a round one road trip to Eltham College to take on the Old Eltham Collegians at 2.10pm on Saturday.
“They’re a dangerous side. They play a certain brand of footy where if we don’t play the way we want to play they can beat us on the turnover pretty quickly,” he said.
“It should be as good a contest as you can ask for in round one. You want to test yourself in the first four weeks, and we’ll play the other three top sides.”
Waite is over for Whittlesea
Whittlesea also has plenty of cause for optimism as it prepares to host Greensborough in its opening round division one match.
The Eagles made headlines during the summer by recruiting former Carlton and North Melbourne AFL player Jarrad Waite, and senior coach Blair Harvey said he had set a standard for the young side.
“He’s exceeded my expectations with his buy-in to the club. He’s getting around all the boys and getting to training every week. He’s been great,” Harvey said.
“His knowledge and leadership have been big. There’s little things he’s been able to teach the boys throughout the pre-season.
“It hasn’t just been the forwards that he’s teaching – he played a lot of footy in the back line at AFL level as well, so he’s been able to work with the backs too.”
Young guns Blake Watson, Zach Molloy, Cam Wild and new recruit Joel Fitzgerald have all earned VFL contracts for the upcoming season, meaning their availability will be a week-by-week proposition for Whittlesea.
Harvey said while it would bring challenges, he was thrilled for all four players.
“They’re only going to benefit from their experience. When we do get them with us it’s going to make our side a lot stronger,” he said.
“We hope we don’t see them too often because it means they’re playing at a high level, but if we do get them it’s a massive bonus.”
Harvey said Whittlesea’s goal was simple – improve on last season’s ninth-place finish.
“Anywhere above ninth for us is an improvement. We all want to play finals, don’t get me wrong. If we’re lucky enough to get there we’ve definitely improved,” he said.
“Hopefully in 12 months we’re better than we are right now.”