U18 Girls season preview: Dandenong Stingrays

DANDENONG Stingrays have their sights set on fast, attacking football this year, following the recruitment of former Carlton AFL Women’s interim coach, Nick Rutley to coach the side. Rutley coached two games in Damien Keeping‘s absence through illness, and will look to bring that experience at the elite level to the Stingrays. He has teamed up with Female Talent Manager, Matthew Crozier for the year as the Stingrays hope to kick-off how they finished off the season – with four straight wins.

Crozier himself came into the role for the first time last year and said it was fantastic to achieve two draftees – captain Jordyn Allen and Shelley Heath heading to Collingwood and Melbourne respectively via the draft.

“It was a good experience, it was a bit surreal,” Crozier said. “I’ve been in the role for 12 months and watching those girls that played in our team last year that were standout girls – seeing ‘Jordy’ run out there and strut her stuff and look to be a bit of a leader out there amongst the back six was really pleasing to see.”

Crozier said the club looked forward to the girls returning at times to motivate the next crop of AFL Women’s hopefuls.

“We’re looking to (have Allen and Heath return), Jordy has enquired about coming back down to training and maybe speaking to a couple of girls who lead the group,” he said. “We have our camp on the 24th of Feb on Sunday so hopefully we can get her down with a couple of the AFLW girls that Nick’s organised through his connections at Carlton. “But yeah, Jordy’s really a pioneer for what a leader should look like amongst the TAC Cup girls, so hopefully what Jordy’s instilled in the group as a top-ager last year is really going to transcend into our 17 year-olds and top-agers this year.”

The 2018 season saw the Stingrays lose the first five games of the year – often in tight games – before breaking through with a victory against Western Jets at Shepley Oval. That win was followed by three more to end the season with a 4-5 win-loss record.

“I think we knew we had a strong list from underneath, it was just a matter of trying to put all the bits of the puzzle together – we felt that if we had another three games left in the season we’d be pushing for top four,” Crozier said. Obviously it’s not about winning games but as a coaching group and talent coordinator sometimes you get that white-line fever. We felt that we did what we could with the group we had, our main priority was getting as many girls exposed to AFL(W) clubs and recruiters as possible and I feel that we did that the best we could – we look after that and the results took care of themselves towards the end of the year.”

Crozier said the shorter seasons allowed girls to test themselves at senior level in the Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s competition.

“It was good because it was a short sort of season and we could really attack it hard, but it was hard with injuries – if you’ve got a soft tissue injury you’re out for half the season,” he said. “I think going forward with the amount of exposure and the expanding of AFLW in the coming years hopefully it will be a stand-alone competition with the TAC Cup boys. “But at the moment for what it is, it’s a really good program. “We’re trying to get the girls back a couple of months after the season to brush up on their skills and make sure that they’re not falling behind – the ones who are coming around next year, the bottom-agers, just so once they go back to local footy their standards are still at a high level and elite level.”

Rutley said he has enjoyed getting back to a grassroots level and adapting to the different styles of the playing group.

“It’s been really good, they’re an enthusiastic bunch which is usually what you get in the female space – they love their footy or their sport in general,” he said. “It’s just getting them to get used to some different terminology, some different ways of coaching – we’ve brought in a little bit of a different look in terms of some different assistants but also, the people that wanted to be involved from last year have stayed on board which is really important to me, so we’ve got a nice little group together and pre-season so far has been good.”

Rutley said adapting into the Stingrays’ program has not been hard thanks to the tireless efforts of boys’ senior coach, Nick Cox and Male Talent Manager, Darren Flanigan.

“Nick Cox has been really good, he’s the boy’s new under 18 coach and he’s been fantastic just as a sort of reference point for me to ring up and talk about coaching, and in terms of integrating programs, all the intentions are there,” Rutley said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work like that but we’ve had a couple of sessions where we’ve been able to do some warm-ups and just some basic craft which is great. “Throughout the year we intend as coaches and maybe some players just to integrate a little bit more, especially with our top-end talent with the girls if we look to have some Vic Country representation potentially they might train on with the boys which I reckon would be a great initiative and is something that Nick spoke about. “I know with Darren Flanigan and Matty’s (Crozier) guidance we’ll be fine.”

Rutley said he could see plenty of talented players who were the future of AFL Women’s.

“This is my first year as a head coach but last year being in the AFLW space with Carlton and seeing girls ranging from 17 to 30 or even older, it’s really evident that the younger girls that have had the privilege of talent pathway programs are now benefitting from that massively,” he said. “Then you just look at the Round 1 games – we spoke about Jordy Allen, (Monique) Conti second year in, (Madison) Prespakis first game, (Nina) Morrison obviously, and there’s a list of many others. “These first or second year girls are showing by being privileged enough to have a pathway to come through, unlike our 30 plus year-old or those from other sports, it’s really telling and beneficial, and we’re only going to see a better product in years to come.”

Dandenong Stingrays are in the unique position of having two guaranteed future AFL Women’s players on their list, with top-agers, Molly McDonald and Isabella Shannon both pre-listed by the Saints who were able to do so as part of the league expansion.

“Molly was one that towards the end of last year we thought was going to be a high draft commodity in 2019 and she’s really turned herself around and started pre-season with Nick (Rutley) coming on board, she’s really taken what Jordy left and run with it and owned it herself in the sense that she doesn’t really need the coach’s direction and really wants to have this group under her own,” Crozier said. “I think from an expansion point of view, the pre-selections give three girls the Sandringham region and the Dandenong Stingrays region a really good opportunity to cement their future and be put on an AFLW list before the season starts.”

For Rutley, he hoped to adapt the fast nature of the AFL Women’s game to his side in order to better prepare the girls for the rigours of the elite league.

“The big thing for me having spoken to AFLW coaches is that they’ve stripped it right back and brought it back to its purest form in skill craft. “If you look at the women’s space and the female game, it hasn’t been alive for that long. It’s growing rapidly and it’s great and really exciting but we need to take a breath as coaches and bring it back and make sure we’re teaching the initial fundamental skills. So we’ve had a really high emphasis on that in terms of” our craft, which is every session and it’s a non-negotiable, then we entered into a bit of a game sense phase just before Christmas and we’ve really started to ramp that up now.”

Rutley said the balance between skills and fitness was something that all clubs had to manage carefully.

“It’s an absolute balance,” he said. “The words marathon and sprint get thrown around in footy, well this is a sprint – 100 per cent. We don’t have a lot of time even in our pre-season phase and we don’t have a lot of time in season so Kelly Fallon has been fantastic in setting up a really good fitness program ranging, not just on the track but also in the gym with their core strength and stability training so we’re pretty happy at the moment that we’ve got a good balance which is important.”

Dandenong had a number of strong defenders last year and it looks to be a similar case this year, with the likes of Lucy Cripps and Zoe Hill potentially being key talls in the back half, having played for Vic Country in their respective age groups in 2018.

“I hope (the defence will be a strength),” Crozier said. “We’re pretty lucky to have those sort of girls coming through the program – it’s pretty rare you get a girl like Lucy Cripps who can mark and kick the footy really well and defend really. This year we have a bit of an emphasis on defence – defence turns into attack so we try and nurture that area of the game pretty well. “But as we said, we want to throw these girls around to different positions and really expose them for the recruiters so you might see Lucy Cripps playing full forward or on-ball or somewhere where she’s not accustomed to and hopefully thrives and catches the eye of AFL(W) recruiters. “Zoe Hill is still a raw talent, only a 17 year-old so hopefully she’ll be better for it this year and next year in 2020 as well she’ll really develop under the coaching group we’ve got at the moment.”

Crozier said the club was lucky to welcome back former female football talent manager, Darren Flanigan who has replaced Mark Wheeler as the Male Talent Manager – with Wheeler moving on to Sandringham Dragons.

“It’s been good because he’s (Flanigan) sort of left us to our own devices in a sense as to it’s our program and how we want to run it, he hasn’t come in over the top which has been good but he’s always been there for myself and Nick to question him about certain things,” Croier said. “The good thing about this year is that Darren’s come back and has been able to give the girls a bit more exposure and love into matching up with the boys program. “In the past, logistically it just hasn’t been able to happen due to not having him in-house but we’re very fortunate to have him and now we have such a great facility (at Seaford), we’ve been able to use the pools and stuff like that similar to the boys so Darren has been fantastic and take no credit away from Mark Wheeler who was the previous talent manager – he was fantastic for the girls and has been a guidance for me over 12 months so they’ve both been great. “Even since Mark left he’s been on the phone giving me advice so they’ve both been great.”

Rutley said he wanted to see as many girls drafted as possible, and therefore would be playing fast, attacking football to catch the attention of recruiters.

“We just want to be exciting and fast,” he said. “I just want the girls to take risks, make lots of mistakes and enjoy their footy. “We won’t be looking to save games and hold possession or play ultra-defensive footy – we will attack on the back of our defence but I just want them to be exciting, take risks and just showcase – at the end of the day they’ve got a real want to win and that’s normal at their age and where they’re at, being competitive, and it’s our job to get a balance of development. “Success will be a by-product of that so if that happens it’s all well and good and if they’re able to do that then they’ll get extra games – if you make finals you get extra games to showcase and that’s important if you’re trying to get to the next level.”

Dandenong Stingrays kick off the season on March 3 against Eastern Ranges at Skybus Stadium, Frankston.

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