Adversity breeds resilience for young Dragons squad
By Marcus Uhe
Round nine's loss against the Murray Bushrangers drew the Sandringham Dragons girls’ season to a close.
In their fourth season in the competition, the girls managed one win against Gippsland in round five, fielding, on many occasions, an inexperienced squad who had their development stalled by the abrupt halt brought to the 2020 season, due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Across the eight games, the girls averaged 27.2 points for, whilst conceding 41.8. At their best, they were daring and aggressive with their ball movement, relishing the opportunity to take the game on and use the corridor.
The pandemic reared its ugly head again in 2021, causing a disjointed opening to the year. Round two’s contest with Dandenong was postponed by a month due to Victoria’s snap-lockdown in February, and in round four the Dragons had their fixtured bye.
This meant that by the fifth week of the competition, the girls had only played three games, with a week-off between each match.
To compensate, they were handed four games in the space of 14 days, including Wednesday and Thursday night fixtures against Dandenong and Oakleigh, respectively.
But adversity brought opportunity, and through opportunity came learnings and resilience. They managed to maintain consistency of effort for the length of the season, something that coach Jackson Kornberg was quick to praise when reviewing the season.
“What we’ve seen throughout the year from game one until the end is, like I could never question the girls’ effort, they give strong effort every time they play,” Kornberg said. “It’s just tinkering round the edges, and it think for us it’s primarily experience.”
“We’re a really young group which is fantastic, to be able to play so many 17-year-olds, and being an under 19s competition, playing so many 17, 18-year-olds is fantastic. But that also bodes well for 2022, a lot of the girls who are going to be playing in the team next year have played almost every game this year, which is going to be great from an experience point of view.”
For midfielder Charlotte Ryan, the improvements in their game style came via the teachings of Kornberg and his coaching panel.
“A lot of the girls including me all got a lot out of the new concepts that we learnt from the coaches, and got a different perspective and look into the game of football from a result of the new structure that was implemented,” Ryan said.
“Really using the width of the ground and making sure that we’re changing lanes and not just bombing it down the line, so that we don’t become a predictable team to play against.”
“Throughout the season we did that really well in some of our games and we became really hard to defend.”
One win from eight outings can be a difficult pill to swallow, particularly for such a young side like Sandringham’s. But reflecting on her first season as captain, Kiana Lynch took immense pride in the squad’s ability to remain positive despite being on the wrong end of a lot of games.
“It was definitely very difficult and challenging to be positive in times when I was also hurting from the losses,” Lynch said. “But I think to (we had to) be resilient and see through it and know that there was always the games after, and many of the times I think we actually deserved to win the games.”
“I think it also helped because the girls around me also knew that as well, and they didn’t drop their heads.”
“Every game, there was never any time we’d rock up and say that we couldn’t win today, even though we lost seven games, so it was hard.”
The engine room of the squad, featuring Lynch, Ryan, Bridie Hipwell, and Sofia Hurley were consistent performers throughout the year, earning selection in the Vic Metro squads for the 2021 national championships. They were joined by Pia Staltari and Chloe Saultry in the under 19s, while Tayla Jones and Keeley Coyne were selected for the under 17s carnival.
And J’Noemi Anderson, originally from Darwin and attending boarding school in Melbourne, represented the Allies squad, pieced-together by representatives from New South Wales, Tasmania, the ACT and the Northern Territory.
Ryan, not unfamiliar with the representative squad environment through her experiences on the hardwood with basketball, embraced the opportunity to learn and develop her craft amongst the elite bracket of her age group.
“Obviously it’s a whole team of different girls and different coaches, so then again, it’s another perspective on the game of football,” she said.
“Having all girls around you that are striving and achieving what you want to achieve in the future, it really pushes you to do your best and be the best you can be and learn off them and improve them, while also improving yourself.”
Ebony Angelopoulos and Charli Murphy lead the way in attack for the Dragons, finishing the season with 10 and eight goals, respectively. Angelopoulos booted three goals in two separate games, but it was Murphy’s five against Gippsland that was the biggest bag in a game this year.
In defence, Natasha Morris and Lucy Mitchell formed a formidable combination, with both offering an offensive threat on turnover once their primary assignments were taken care of.
With the 58-point win against Gippsland the obvious peak of the season, Kornberg and Lynch were in agreeance that their narrow loss to Oakleigh was one of the highlights of the campaign, despite the result.
“Even though we just went down, you also can’t go past playing against Oakleigh at RSEA park on a Thursday night,” Kornberg said. “I think that was a really cool opportunity for the girls.”
“We went down by a handful of points but to play a night game, in one of the better NAB League games that I’ve seen this year, I think they’re the two highlights from a program point of view.”
“Certainly, the Gippsland win tops it for the year.”
Lynch believes that she will remember the game for a long time to come, not just because of what happened on the field, but for the intangible wave of belief she could feel in the rooms post-game.
“We all agreed that against Oakleigh Chargers we probably could have deserved to win that game and we took that positive away, rather than the loss itself,” she said.
“Even though it was pretty sad on all of us to lose, we all were so positive after the game and it took a great achievement out of all of us and it thought it was really good because every girl on the team that played took great initiative on how to deal with a tough loss.”
Having completed the NAB League campaign, the girls will now play the remainder of the season at local or school level, with a select few pushing their claims to play in the VFLW competition at the Southern Saints.
For the older girls in the group, ambitions to play in the AFLW in 2022 abound. But there’s no doubting that the future at Sandringham is in good hands with the likes of Hipwell and Hurley leading the way.
“They’re amazing players, amazing footballers,” Ryan said. “They’ve just got extraordinary talents.”
“I have all my faith in Bridie and Sofia, and even other girls like Tayla Jones, to come through and lead the up-and-coming Dragons girls.
“I think it’ll just be getting stronger and stronger each year, as women’s footy is continuously growing.”