2022 NAB League season preview: Dandenong Stingrays

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 Dandenong Stingrays.

The rise, and rise of Mac Andrew was a sight to behold last year, as the Stingrays star quickly became a sensation among his draft cohort. After missing out on so much football over the last two years, Dandenong coach Nick Cox is hopeful his region will unearth even more bolting prospects in 2022 – including Mac’s bottom-ager brother, Riak.

“I think this year we’re definitely going to find some diamonds in the rough with the boys not getting the exposure they had (previously), particularly in Victoria over the last couple of years,” Cox said. “We’ve got some boys that could possibly pop up but right now.

“We obviously got five boys drafted in 2021, which was a credit to our program and our region. By all reports the boys are fitting in really well… They’re not only good footballers, but really good people as well so we’re pretty proud of that. This time last year they were here (at preseason testing), so hopefully we’ll get a few through this year.”

With the Stingrays’ girls program currently unbeaten on the eve of finals, there is a fair bit of momentum behind the club. Every team claims to have had a great preseason at this time of year, but Cox says he cannot speak highly enough of what Dandenong has been able to produce in the lead up to season proper.

“We make sure the athletes have every available opportunity to compete in the NAB League system,” he said. “The boys started really well back in November, and they’re getting towards the end of their (preseason) program now. Ben Benson is our strength and conditioning coach, I can’t speak of him any higher, he’s done a fantastic job in both our boys and our girls programs so we’ll see where we sit.”

Looking across the Stingrays squad, there are four Vic Country hub members – including one who earned AFL Academy honours for his performances last year. Having waxed with some of the best talent each Country region has to offer, all four prospects have lifted the standards upon returning to the Dandenong setup.

“They’ve been going well,” Cox said. “The thing that ‘Corra’ (Paul Corrigan) and ‘Tarks’ (Tarkyn Lockyer) talk about is when they come back to our program, they’ve been training with the best of the Vic Country hub so they come back with really good standards and are driving that throughout our program which is what should be expected. That’s been pleasing so far.”

The four hub members – Jaxon Binns, Henry Hustwaite, Ned Moodie, and Mitch Szybkowski – have already tasted top-age NAB League experience. Binns is also a talented cricketer who looks to be leaning more towards football. Hustwaite has strong family ties to the region with his elder brother, Campbell a premiership captain. Moodie is a likely type too, but had a disrupted preseason due to illness.

Cox was particularly glowing in his review of Szybkowski, who is the AFL Academy member of the crop and a player who he says performs like “an animal on the training track”. The top-ager spent time training with Melbourne over the break, something which Cox says should put him in good stead.

“The good thing about Mitch is that he never changes the way that he is,” he said. “Obviously he got into the AFL Academy, he trains so professionally and gets the best out of himself. “It’s well deserved for the way he is, the way he prepares and obviously he’s got some football talent as well. That mix is pretty good at the moment. His expectations of himself are quite high, and all he does is control what he can – that’s his training and preparation.”

Complimenting the top-age standouts are a handful of over-age talents returning to the region for another go at it. In particular, Cox says Jai Culley has come back in ideal condition to continue his development and spend more time in important positions.

“We’ve got five (19-year-olds) training with us at the moment. I’m not sure whether all will play in Round 1, we’ll have to make a decision on that,” Cox said. “The notable ones are obviously Lachlan Robinson and Jai Cully. Jai has come back in really good condition from last year so we’re looking for him to take a big step forward.

“Last year was his first in an elite program, so he was getting to understand the standards that are required. This year he’s come back in really good nick and he’s been doing all his craft in the midfield so I look forward to seeing that.”

The Stingrays begin their boys campaign on Saturday April 2 with a home game against the Eastern Ranges, at 3pm. Having locked horns with the Ranges twice last season, the two sides should know each other well despite respective list turnovers.

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