By Hugh Maclean
Over the six years of the SFNL netball competition, Dingley and Heatherton have dominated proceedings in the top division; their three premierships apiece not leaving much room for success for any other club. It took the efforts of a plucky and improving Caulfield outfit on preliminary final day to give the rest of the competition hope that there could yet be more than two horses in the finish of this race.
Caulfield were not to defeat Dingley on this day, meaning that the two aforementioned power clubs fought out the grand final for the fifth time in six years, but they did not give up without one heck of a fight in what was the match of the year.
Heatherton were much too powerful for Dingley in a rain-sodden grand final the following weekend, as they were in a somewhat drier encounter the year before. Winning three grand finals in a row takes some doing, but the Tunners are a proud bunch, and are committed to retaining their seat at the top of the table. 2018 however shapes as the most interesting season yet, as at least six sides have genuine designs on a spot in the top four, or even the top two.
Heatherton have been beset by the significant loss of star shooter Rahni Samason, who seeks pastures greener with the Melbourne Vixens. However, the axis of the championship teams in the Mifsud sisters, Nat Billings, Kirsten Daley and Ella Batish still remain. The addition of Leah Seeto in a full-time capacity, and exciting youngsters Jaya Blanthorn (Swan Hill) and Maggie Carlon (intra-club promotion), means that it would still take a brave person to tip against Heatherton going deep into August once more.
Dingley are a club that are not renowned for being content to play second fiddle, and have taken steps over the summer to bolster their squad in an attempt to go one step further than in 2017. The loss of the deadly accurate Bridgette Furphy has been offset by Monash VNL sharp-shooter Monique Lenehan-Moustafa. Dingley have also added height and speed to their defensive stocks in the shape of 18-year old Southern Saints representative Kirsty Clark, and having star goaler Sarah Fischer back from an ankle injury that kept her out for half of 2017 further adds to their strength. The running power and versatility of their mid-court means that there will be plenty of opportunities to score coming Dingley’s way.
Caulfield again look the most likely of the chasing pack to mount a challenge. There has been a bit of change in the air in this squad, but this change has mostly been positive as twenty new players come into the top three sides. Major losses include goal keeper Alice Pohlner to Albury, and Georgia Heenan and Jemima Price to VNL and study commitments, but the Bears have been able to add the creativity and experience of ex-Queensland state leaguer Domica Wescombe, and the solidity of Geelong defender Tiffany McConnell. Brodie Aumont and Megan Ellett are also promoted from the Division 2 side to join the likes of Makayla Bulte and Fotini Stavrou in feeding a goal circle led by crack shooter Sophie O’Shea.
Keysborough were the other members of the final four last year, as they have been each season since joining the SFNL. The Burras have maintained a very solid squad throughout this time, and the bulk of this squad remains to take on 2018. Samantha Downie steps into the role of non-playing coach and Bec MacInnes lends her experience to the Division 2 side, but key players such as attacker Laura Agius, and mid-courters Megan Kennedy, Courtney Nash and Amy Burns provide the strength to show that Keysborough will still be a force to be reckoned with this year. Keysborough are one side that can be relied upon to give a consistent performance week after week. They were a match for any side in 2017 despite rarely being able to field their best squad, and any measure of good fortune will see them right in the mix come August.
St Pauls and St Kilda City may be in for rebuilding seasons in 2018. Both clubs have seen multiple players head for the exit door, with City in particular only able to retain Chloe Ballard and Sarah Jackson from the 2017 side. The recruitment of Katarina Mary Lundkvist to provide much needed experience, and the promotion of several promising youngsters from lower divisions will yet give them much to be excited about. St Pauls have also had their task made more difficult by the loss of much experience, but as with City it enables them to showcase the next wave of players in the red, white and blue. St Pauls finished last season with several positive displays, and it would not surprise to see more wins in store this year for this proud club.
The two new additions to Division 1 are the surprise packets of 2018. Hampton Park joins us from the SEFNL, where they last year finished just outside the finals in a strong A-grade competition. They will be keen to make their mark on our competition, and will see a genuine opportunity to secure a finals position in 2018. Little is known of the Redbacks but they will be confident that names such as Alisha Parissis and Khloe Weaver in defence, and Megan Egbers around the attacking goal circle will be household names by finals time.
Mordialloc come up from Division 2 with a new coach, Sophie Durnan; three others with current or past VNL experience in Caity deGaris, Emily Morris and Amy Gledhill; and as many as 22 more new players throughout their five teams. These along with an established base of players from last year mean that Mordialloc aren’t in Division 1 to wait for the bus. They wish to make a mark in their first Division 1 season in five years, to annex some silverware for the first time in the SFNL netball competition, and to challenge for finals. Their squad strength suggests that this may not be beyond them.
The SFNL this year fields nine divisions, up from last year’s eight. Division 2 also looks very competitive, with Murrumbeena and Cheltenham joining those looking to break the dominance that Heatherton have had. Heatherton and Dingley have also held a significant influence in the lower divisions, although Caulfield, Oakleigh Districts and Keysborough were able to win lower grade grand finals in 2017 and will be keen to continue their development. It all adds up to a fascinating season which begins this Saturday.