“Anything’s possible” for young Westies

IT was not all doom and gloom for West Adelaide last season despite receiving the wooden spoon, with Bloods coach Bruce Dawes taking away plenty of positives from 2023. In his first year at the helm, the former Sturt mentor led the side to two straight wins to start the season, but after injuries struck, depth was tested and the side went one draw and nine losses for the remainder of the season.

Despite the ladder position, Dawes said the team – which featured a plethora of teenagers last season – took a lot out of the year, particularly in the backend of the season.

“The biggest one for us last year was obviously the games we were able to get into girls who weren’t expecting to play much League football,” Dawes said. “Some of those girls have come to preseason this year really well prepared and ready to play League footy which is awesome.

“It gives us that depth straight away that we didn’t expect to have. That’s been a real plus for us. I think the other one as well is just the education we were able to get into the girls last year.”

Though long-term injuries to skipper Madison Russell and midfield recruit Paige Allan headlined a tough season – as well as star youngster Lucy Boyd missing the last third of the season with an ankle injury – they are set to return this season alongside delisted Crow, Hannah Button.

In the run home, the Bloods drew with Woodville-West Torrens, lost to Sturt by a point and went down to Norwood narrowly, showing a competitive effort and improvement from the month prior.

“We only actually had six girls who were still playing from our Round 1 teams through girls being injured and the like,” Dawes said. “Even those last four games we had a draw against the Eagles, we lost to Sturt by a point, lost to Norwood by a few points, then Centrals beat us easy.

“We were actually getting better even if we didn’t have that top-end class possibly that we were hoping we’d have. That was probably the best thing. You could see them coming together as a group and starting to understand the game plan that we wanted to bring in and executing like we wanted to, so that was a real bonus from last year.”

In the midst of all the chaos, one player who had an underrated season was Zoe Venning, who took out another club best and fairest, won Team of the Year honours and led the league in disposals. Dawes said she had always had the talent, but had built on her leadership skills last season, describing her year as “outstanding”.

“I think where her growth came last year was her ability to understand the structures and make sure her teammates were setup around her,” he said. “That leadership that she showed on the field as well, not only for her getting the footy, but that was the big step for her.

“One stage last year one of our midfield stoppages we had two 15-year-olds, a 16 and a 17-year-old in at the midfield because Zoe’s having a rest and all of a sudden you look this year you’ve potentially got Zoe Venning, Hannah Button, we’ll have Keeley Kustermann for the first few games, Iilish Ross will roll through there.

“All of a sudden we’ve got a bit more maturity, size and experience that should really help us out for sure.”

West Adelaide also has a number of promising top-age draft talents, headlined by Boyd who will likely slot back into defence where she can be a “rebounding, intercept type player”. While Dawes said the utility will likely swing forward when needed, her best position was in defence, and the depth in the midfield meant she was likely to be the general back there.

Asha Dufour swung into the on-ball group with great success. Image credit: Lisa West Adelaide Footy

Ruby Ballard has been earmarked to continue her high half-forward role with some midfield rotation, while Asha Dufour, who played inside midfield in the second half of the season “out of necessity” exceeded expectations and will continue to rotate between there and her more familiar wing role.

“I would suggest at this stage she’ll be a combination of both,” Dawes said of Dufour. “There will be games where she will be on the wing, there will be games where she’ll be inside mid, and there could even be a chance for rolling up to a half-forward at some stage as well.”

The one top-ager who is set for a role change in 2024 is defender Emma Kilpatrick who dug deep over the off-season and worked hard on her running. That commitment will see the reliable kick and powerful player develop into a hybrid wing-defence role.

“She’s one who had a really massive off-season, she got herself a running coach, worked really hard on her fitness, all of that’s really paying off for her at the moment,” Dawes said. “Even on our trial on the weekend, she’s still belting up and down the wing.

“While a few others were still pooped with the hot weather, but she’s had an outstanding off-season and that’s transferred into her preseason which is great. For her, she can read the ball off half-back, she’s certainly developing her skills as a winger, so really it’s a matter of trying to make them all fit at the moment.”

Emma Kilpatrick is set for a role change further afield as a wing-defender hybrid. Image credit: Lisa West Adelaide Footy

Adelaide Crows recruit Brooke Smith will return to defence where she started for the Dandenong Stingrays in her first Talent League season, as the West Lakes coaches view the utility as more of a defensive player.

“That was huge for us. At this stage I think with her and the Crows, they see her as a defender, so we’re going to try and help her with that development in her game, probably more than likely will play down back for us,” Dawes said. The training she’s done with us she’s just slotted in so well. Nice kid and got some talent, hopefully we can make the most of that in our first five rounds.”

Smith will join Kustermann and Lauren Young as eligible AFLW-listed players who will run around for the Bloods in the first month and change of the season, while the club was also hoping to still play Melbourne-bound Lily Johnson before she headed east.

As for fresh faces to the club, Emily Mableson is a junior who has caught the eye through training, initially only invited for experience, but has wowed coaches and teammates so much so that she has forced her way into the League squad for the entire summer, playing both senior trials and has been “outstanding” off half-back.

“She’s just a natural footballer, she just gets the game, her awareness of everything that’s going on around her is outstanding. She’s probably been a real surprise packet for us. Knew she was talent, thought it might take her a little longer to develop, but she’s come on really well over preseason. We look to see her make an impact early.”

Dawes named Jasmine White – a recruit from Mount Gambier – as another to watch down the track as she recoveries from a few “niggly injuries” that have delayed her start to the season, but looms as an impactful forward, as well as Ella Maxwell, a top-ager who squeezed in six games for the Bloods in 2023.

Looking ahead to Round 1 and West Adelaide has a tough ask first up against grand finalists South Adelaide. Dawes said the Panthers had been the benchmark team for the 2023 SANFL Women’s season up until the grand final and would be a tough ask. However, he was keen to get into the action.

“I feel our team’s changed a bit from last year so I don’t know where we really sit at this stage, so it’s really just get out there and play and see how we match up and go from there,” Dawes said.

As for the club’s 2024 goals, finals were the clear aim for a club that played in a grand final just three seasons ago, but has not been able to secure the same continuity since. Dawes said “anything can happen” and was looking forward to the possibilities for his side if the players could build up momentum and confidence throughout the season.

“I think if you’re not playing to play finals, why are you actually playing for? So our goal is definitely to play finals,” Dawes said. “Whether or not that happens who knows, but I still think we’ve got the talent there, it’s just that combination of putting that talent together and seeing if we can get that confidence up and getting a bit of a roll on and see what we can do.”

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