NAB League season preview: Bendigo Pioneers

AN ADDITIONAL training base, renewed optimism and fresh opportunities headline a successful off-season for the Bendigo Pioneers. The club with the largest land mass in the competition is ready and raring to go in season 2019, after a number of top-agers impressed as bottom-agers last season. Talent Manager Stephen Sharp said he was optimistic about the year ahead.

“We had a reasonably strong 17-year-old group last year who are obviously now top-age,” he said. “We think we’ve got some good prospects, and getting access to all our kids together would be a dream for us, to be able to have them all train together and play together because we think that would be able to help our performances. “Not mentioning wins because it’s not the focus of the program. “We’re pretty excited, but we do get access to most of them.”

While some of the Pioneers top prospects, Brodie Kemp and Thomson Dow will board at Geelong Grammar, Bendigo will have access to them in the first few rounds and late in the season. It will boost the Pioneers, who Sharp said have a number of raw potential draft prospects for the 2019 season.

“(Kemp) would be one of the top prospects,” Sharp said. “There’s himself, there’s Thomson Dow, there’s Flynn Perez who’s out with an ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) for the year, he’s had an ACL reconstruction so he won’t play any footy, but he’ll get himself ready for the combine. “He’s a real leader. “There’s James Schischka, there’s Aaron Gundry who’s about 200cm. “We’ve got Matt Hird who’s a developing tall who’s had a bit of injury interruption, he’s 203cm, he ran in the state trials of 800, 1500m for his school in NSW, he lives in Barham. “We’ve got some raw talent up there. “Braydon Vaz is another key forward/defender, hybrid sort of player. “Cooper Vick, we’ve got some good talent at the top end. We think we’ve got a handful, whether that be five, it could be one.”

Sharp said the 2019 draft crop had the potential to emulate that of the 2017 crop which saw Paddy Dow, Lochie O’Brien, Angus Schumacher (all Carlton), Jarrod Brander (West Coast), Brent Daniels (GWS GIANTS) and Kane Farrell (Port Adelaide) all land at AFL clubs.

“We think there’s good prospects this year, not too dissimilar to 2017,” he said. “We were a bit lean last year, we thought we might get two. “We thought Jacob Atley might have gone, and he was pretty close, I think Essendon were keen to take him. “He’s been contracted to their VFL. “Obviously Jye Caldwell went to GWS at 11. “But we think there could be three or four.

“We’re happy with the way the program is progressing. “We’ve had 14 players drafted in the past four years, just under four a year. “If you can get another four this year, that keeps that consistency up there which is really good. That sends a good message to the kids in our region, if you come into our region you can get drafted.”

With the Bendigo region stretching up to both the New South Wales and South Australian borders, the Pioneers network stretches across the north west of the state. While the region is large, it provides its own challenges with travel a staple of Pioneers players routines. Sharp was excited to announce a fourth training base to reduce travel over the off-season.

“I think it’s ticking along well,” Sharp said. “We’ve got some really good staff, we’ve opened up a Moama training base this year so we’ve got four regional centres, so we’ve got Bendigo, Moama, Swan Hill and Mildura who train from November through to nearly the end of February. “Purely because of the size of the region we can’t get everyone together. “In saying that we do have our testing down here in Bendigo at the end of December and had some trial games in early February, which is always good to get the kids together when we can.”

In 2019, the new-look NAB League features interstate sides once again, and brings back memories for Sharp, who recalls a time when non-Victorian sides were a regular fixture on the then-TAC Cup calendar. Sharp said Tasmania being a full-time side was particularly exciting for the competition and the Pioneers program.

“It’s exciting for us because I was involved many years ago with the NSW/ACT Rams when we were in Canberra,” he said. “The (Tasmania) Mariners and the Rams were a part of the normal fixturing back in that 96 (1996) through to the early 2000s. “So we’re excited by that prospect because we played Tassie in Tassie in 2015 in May, and we play them twice this year.”

Sharp said the club was excited to both travel down to Tasmania in July, and welcome the Devils to Queen Elizabeth Oval in May.

“It’s a good opportunity for the kids to get away and stay overnight, so we’re looking forward to playing Tassie,” he said. “Particularly with them coming here adds a bit more profile to our program with an interstate team coming here.”

With an exciting batch of raw talents in 2019, Sharp said spectators could expect the Pioneers to play an exciting brand of football to give themselves the best chance of being drafted, while maintaining accountability.

“I think that’s a philosopy of our program,” he said. “We’ve got to showcase the kids’ talents; defensive mindset and accountability when need be, but you’ve got to get the footy and take the game on and showcase what you’ve got because it is that sort of program, so Rick’s got a really simple game style. “We’re working his coaching principles around teaching the fundamentals, your clean ground ball, your kicking skills, your handballing, your marking, your decision making, all that simple stuff is a real strong focus of his coaching. Whether he’s coaching groups or throughout our region, you can get caught up in structures of the game, gameplans and setups and all that, but if you can’t execute it… you could have the best gameplan in the world couldn’t you? We thought we’d keep it pretty simple.”

The Bendigo Pioneers begin their season on Sunday, March 24 against Geelong Falcons at Central Reserve, Colac.

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