MURRAY Bushrangers coaches and players will be excited when the long wait for a NAB League game is finally over next weekend. The NAB League Girls kicks off on the weekend of February 6-7 and the Bushrangers lock horns with Bendigo Pioneers up in Yarrawonga in a traditional country clash. For Bushrangers’ Talent Operations Lead Mick Wilson, the realisation has dawned on the club that after 10 months of preseason and offseason, NAB League will return.
“I think everyone’s pretty excited,” Wilson said. “Realistically we’ve had quite a number of lead ups. “With COVID last year and coming back and building up to potentially starting up at training, there was another stop and so the excitement that the boys and girls realised something will happen now.
“When you think about it the boys program, the girls program got to play two games, the boys haven’t played at all. “So you’re putting in almost two preseasons before a game of footy. So there’s a lot of excitement around the place and everyone is looking forward to playing a game of footy.”
Between the COVID-19 global pandemic and the recent heatwave in Victoria’s north-east, it has not made training or preparation easy. Wilson said it took a lot of “self-discipline” from the players, but admitted every club was in the same boat.
It’s obviously a dramatic change to what we’re used to. The girls up to their first game had something like 30-odd training sessions, so that’s significant. That’s something that COVID caused that change and you’ve just got to work with that and the kids have been fantastic and have all been working really hard in their programs.
“The boys and girls had to be really self-disciplined, but we’re no different to 12 other teams, it’s just the new world now. Obviously the first couple of rounds it will take the players to adjust because the matchday intensity is so much more significant, in regards to the pace of the match, it doesn’t replicate real game day intensity, so the girls will feel that and I suppose we’ve also had the heat and the girls have been working hard. “Hopefully we get away for a few days that aren’t so hot with four of our matches in February.”
Looking at the 2021 Murray Bushrangers list, AFL Women’s Academy member Ally Morphett stands out, with the talented tall having starred in the AFL Canberra League, finishing runner-up in the Bainrot Medal (league best and fairest) at just 16-years-old. Now a top-age talent, the New South Wales local is one who will provide competitiveness in the air, and great skills for a taller player.
“Ally’s a very talented sportsperson,” Wilson said. “She competes really well, is really skilled. “She competes well above her head, and has played football for a while now so has the footy nous.”
Outside of Morphett though, the Bushrangers are flushed with depth across the field which has pleased the coaching staff ahead of the season. Wilson said there were a number of draft-eligible players who were robbed of an opportunity as middle-agers in 2020, but were keen to show what they could do this year.
“We’ve also got Sophia McCarthy, she’s a top-age (turning 19) player this year,” Wilson said. “She’s really developed well in the preseason. “Her kicking is at the elite level, she’s a brilliant kick and she’s worked on her fitness, and had a really, really strong preseason. “She’ll probably be playing either as a key forward or key back in the first few games.”
“There’s some other top players in their draft years, Lily Sharp is a girl from Finley, she’s another very talented young player. “Really, really nice kid. “She’ll play through the midfield. “Molly Kennedy‘s a midfielder as well who moves really well. She’s in her draft year.
“India Lehman is a smaller player. “India is a rover/defensive pressure forward. “All these girls are really talented players, we didn’t get to see much of them last year, but we’ve got a really good opportunity to see them this year which is great.”
The squad might be an exciting one, but as always, it is more so about development and how far players can go in 2021 to give themselves the best chance to reach the elite level, or improve their game to get as far as they can with their football journey.
“While we’re hoping to be competitive to give players exposure at the highest level they can play, we’re all about development,” Wilson said. “So specifically we’re not looking at results and whether we’ll finish into the finals. “That’s not really an ambition or a goal, it’s really about development.”
Having a team that features players from both sides of the Victoria-New South Wales border made 2020 difficult given restrictions not only to training numbers, but to access during hard lockdown, but Wilson said the Bushrangers had a “pretty resilient group”.
Last year’s captain Kate Adams will return to the club in 2021 as one of the nominated 19-year-old talents coming through, and will take up the role again.
“Kate was captain last year and she’s coming back into the program,” Wilson said. “It’s pretty significant for these kids because a lot of them are going to university or finishing Year 12 and going into full-time work so the way they’ve been transitioning has been fantastic. “Kate’s coming back and she will play through the midfield, have a midfield role this year most likely if she’s going to be around and not moving for university, she will continue to be captain again.”
One of the top prospects for 2022 is middle-ager Keeley Skepper who starred at the Under 16s Championships for Vic Country, as did teammate Cassidy Mailer. Unfortunately for the latter, a rare stress-related fracture to her tibia has ruled her out for at least the first half of the season. Wilson said she was doing well despite the injury, “she’s really dedicated in her rehab and we’re looking forward to seeing her come back.”
Skepper’s preseason has also impressed Wilson who named her as one on of the top performers on the track amongst a number of players who have stood out over the preseason.
“Keeley Skepper’s been terrific,” he said. “Her running has been outstanding, she just keeps going and working really hard. Lily Sharp is another one who’s been doing work and training hard. “I mentioned Sophia McCarthy before, she’s had a really good preseason, and Soph identified that was an improvement and she’s worked really hard in that area. “There’s two of our younger players, girls in the ’05 who have been going really well, but realistically across the board we’re fairly even.”
Now the preseason is done and dusted, just one week remains until the Bushrangers have a chance to put theory into practice when they meet the Pioneers on the border next Saturday, February 6.