2022 NAB League season preview: Eastern Ranges

THE 2022 NAB League Boys season is set to kick off at the start of April, with genuine excitement surrounding the latest crop of AFL Draft prospects. The 13 full-time regions are again set to compete in Australia’s most prolific talent pathway, and we preview each squad as season proper approaches. Next up, the Eastern Ranges.

It’s going to be a busy month for Ranges head coach Travis Cloke, as his boys squad approaches Round 1 and the high-flying girls team enters finals atop the Metro standings. Making for an “exciting” time of the year, Cloke says the crossover has only helped the region’s “one club” mentality.

“We’ll enjoy the enthusiasm,” Cloke said. “Yes, we’re almost at the back-end of our girl’s season and finals, but how good is it to have the first week of finals and Round 1 of the boys in the same weekend? We’re looking forward to it, I think we’ve got the Dandenong Stingrays down at Frankston so it should be a fantastic way to start our 2022 season.

“Fingers crossed the boys come across and support the girls, and vice-versa. We have a one club mentality, the boys had a practice match on Thursday night and we had about 40 girls stay back to watch so I love to see that, and it’s an exciting month ahead for NAB League football.”

Trimming down from a training squad of 80 players in preseason, the Ranges’ boys program boasts a few top-end talents, including a rare bottom-aged AFL Academy member. With a core group of top-agers looking to take the reigns after a successful draft haul, Cloke is confident in what Eastern can produce.

“We’re now down to 53 (players) but there’s still probably 10 to go before we finalise our squad,” he said. “This year’s talent, we’re bringing in a lot of 16 and 17-year-old boys who’ve missed a lot of footy over the last 18 months, so it’ll be interesting to see how they perform this year. We’ll have a couple of 19-year-olds but not too many, and a core group of 18-year-olds this year.

“I think the consistency across our squad is quite nice, we’ve got a few talents, that’s what you want each year but you never know how you’re going to stack up against other NAB regions. I’m confident in our program and what we’re doing so we should have a successful, if not an enjoyable year.”

The aforementioned bottom-age talent in the national academy is Nick Watson, a diminutive forward who already has NAB League and representative experience under his belt. With another year left until he is draft eligible, Cloke says 2022 will be about learning and development for the young gun.

“Nick is an interesting one,” he said. “He’s still not eligible to be drafted for another 12 months being 17. He’s part of the national academy which is fantastic but he’s an amazing talent. We all know that he played some really good football last year in the NAB League so for him, we’re just managing expectations this year and developing him on and off the field. He’s part of a new APS program this year so we’ll lose him for most of the year, but at the same time it’s going to be about narrowing the focus for him and getting a really good product.”

Glancing at the top-age talent, it is difficult to look past the likes of Vic Metro talent hub members Kai Windsor and Lewis Hayes. Stepping into some big shoes, the pair are among a solid group of 18th-year talents ready to stake their own draft claims.

“That’s what you want, the younger guys to step up and learn from the previous year with the players that have been drafted,” Cloke said. “I look forward to seeing ‘Hayesy’ and how he develops this year, he’s got his brother (Sam) there as a great reference already in the draft a few years ago.

“Kai Windsor is an amazing talent, great leg speed and penetration with the ball. Now it’s just about teaching him a few other tricks to make him stand out this year. If we talk about Kai we’ve got to talk about his brother as well, he’s a bit of a jet too so we look forward to seeing his development going forward.

“As 18-year-olds, Lachlan Reidy is quite solid, Callum Farrell missed last year due to a shoulder reconstruction. Zac Greeves as well, he missed out on the final Metro squad this year so we’ll see how he pushes on.”

After a welcome long preseason, the Ranges begin their 2022 campaign on April 2 with a Saturday afternoon clash against the Dandenong Stingrays at Skybus Stadium. Their first ‘home’ game is scheduled for Round 2 at Ikon Park, though they play Oakleigh at Box Hill City Oval a week later.

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