Stingrays “stoked” to showcase talent on the big stage

QUALIFYING for two grand finals in a calendar year is no mean feat, but it’s exactly what the Dandenong Stingrays have done in 2022. After the girl’s program went through the home-and-away rounds undefeated and had six players drafted, it’s the boy’s turn to compete on the last day of the NAB League season.

The ‘Rays come in as one of the form sides of the competition, having won nine of their last 10 games. For coach Nick Cox, the opportunity for his players to showcase their talent in one more game is the most pleasing aspect of their appearance in Friday evening’s decider.

“We are (stoked) to be honest,” Cox said. “To be able to play deeper in finals with the girls obviously got a couple over the line draft-wise, and I would envisage the same sort of thing could happen with our boys as well. To give the boys another opportunity to showcase (their talent) on the big stage, is something that will definitely help them come draft time.”

A one-point win over Tasmania got Dandenong home in a tense preliminary final, a feat which has become familiar for the current crop of Stingrays. Including last Saturday’s thriller, they have won four games by a single-digit margin, and six by under two goals.

Performing under pressure is another element in pushing the case for potential draft candidates. It also helps heading into such a high stakes game.

“Our ability to win games, particularly in the close ones… for the development of players in that scenario, you couldn’t get anything better from it,” Cox said. “The win’s important, we realise that we can win from anywhere, but to show players under pressure in those situations will help us going into this week’s game.”

While the side’s flexibility throughout the season and improvement from bottom-agers have been key reasons for marked improvement, the Stingrays will look noticeably different through the middle of the ground on Friday.

Henry Hustwaite is a huge inclusion for Dandenong | Image Credit: Rookie Me Central

Cox confirmed on Wednesday that star on-ballers Mitch Szybkowski and Henry Hustwaite will “100 per cent” play. While the former had Covid, the latter was kept out for the last two weeks with a niggling ankle complaint. They undoubtedly boost Dandenong’s stocks, but their availability may cause some selection headaches, especially with Morrish Medallist Taj Campbell-Farrell also set to return.

“They’re top-end players but our ability to have players come in and play a role and go really well is probably the exciting part of the last couple of weeks – it doesn’t help at selection though,” Cox said.

“Obviously ‘Hust’ and ‘Sibba’ going through there again helps, but Cooper Simpson‘s possibly one of the best 17-year-olds in the country at the moment with the way he’s going. We’ve had Nicholas Collier who’s gone through there, we’ve had a lot of different looks.

“At one stage on the weekend we had Kade De La Rue, Cooper Simpson, and Sam Frangalas as bottom-agers starting in the centre bounce in a NAB League final. That’s probably where our improvement’s come from the most to be honest, our 17-year-olds have jumped out of the ground which has been really pleasing for us.”

Sam Frangalas is among the Stingrays’ gun bottom-agers | Image Credit: Rookie Me Central

While one side of the coin shows a couple of timely inclusions, Dandenong will be without one of its most exciting forwards in Sam Latreille through suspension. The speedy small had “gone up another level” over the last few weeks, and a disappointed Cox says the Stingrays are “feeling for him” after he was ruled out for a sling tackle which concussed his opponent.

In terms of how the Stingrays will stack up against Sandringham come grand final day, Cox says his coaching staff will have to be smart about some of the “mouthwatering” matchups which promise to take place.

“I think that they’ve got some really good top-end talent,” he said. “What we can’t forget is the reason why they’ve gotten to where they have is they’re fairly strong in a lot of areas, but in saying that, we’ll have to be smart with matchups and how things are done on the day to combat what they do well.

“We think that our firepower’s good as well so it’s going to be exciting to watch. The number one draft pick in the country’s playing (Will Ashcroft), we’ll have a Henry Hustwaite, a Cooper Simpson or someone like that on him and it’ll be good to watch.”

Cox highlighted the likes of Ziggy Toledo and Finn Emile-Brennan as a couple of players who could be potential difference-makers for his side. The Stingrays haven’t changed much in preparation for the week, aside from a few well wishes and the like from former people of the program.

In a sentimental touch, 2018 premiership winning coach Craig Black and captain Campbell Hustwaite will be among those delivering a final message to the playing group. Before their maiden triumph four seasons ago, the ‘Rays had lost in five grand finals, but will hope for something much more like 2018 on Friday night.

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