Longwarry ‘rising from the ashes’

Bailey Stephens bursts away from an Ellinbank defender. 406510 Pictures: STEWART CHAMBERS.

By Jonty Ralphsmith

Longwarry was unable to secure the win against Ellinbank as Jason Wells passed 1000 career goals.

Wells finished with six goals in the 9.9 63 to 11.10 76 loss, Longwarry’s second in a row after starting the season with three wins from its first four games.

But despite sitting in sixth position in the 11-team Ellinbank District Football League (EDFL), the Crows are confident that they are on the right trajectory.

First-year coach Darren Granger piloted a recruiting drive for a club which has struggled since Covid-19 hit at a frustrating time.

After breaking a 52-year premiership drought in 2019, the Crows were well-positioned to defend their flag before the pandemic scuppered those plans.

Several juniors left the club for various reasons which left the Crows fielding a young side languishing near the foot of the ladder.

“We didn’t recruit players well after Covid-19, if at all, so there was nothing to entice players back to the club until this year when everything was fresh,” Van Der Heyden said.

“We’ve got nothing in our town to encourage people to want to come back to Longwarry.

“After we had won that grand final, there wasn’t a great deal for them to come to – we had won our flag, so that was tough.”

“We wanted to get the soul back to Longwarry by getting juniors returning.”

Securing Wells’ return was a crucial one, given his experience and family involvement at the club, with several others returning across the offseason, including Tom Wyatt, Cole Cook, Bailey Stephens Kane Taylor and Kane Oldham.

“We looked at some players who were part of the premiership team and a lot of the guys were in the same age group and are good mates so they were the first on the list we wanted to get back to the club and we knew the environment we wanted to create, they would assist,” Granger said.

“The basics were there, it was just a matter of getting players in some positions we needed to improve on.”

The immersion of the new coach in the club was seamless as players turned out in great numbers and excitement reigned in preseason.

“It’s been great to get everybody back to our club and get that buzz,” Van Der Heyden said.

“Some nights we had 60 players out there, including under-18s and that definitely helped create the energy on the track.

“You’d drive up the driveway and go ‘wow, that’s fantastic’ which helped get it all going and people who aren’t playing football but have moved back to the area have tried to revive the club.”

The effervescence quickly flattened during the practice matches and first fortnight of the season as injuries mounted.

While a dagger blow, the progression has been clear.

“We’ve got a plan up and coming for the next few years – we wanted to be competitive with the teams around us and close the gap with the top four or five teams and make those margins a little bit less and after the first 12 months, build even further,” Granger said.

Last year, the Crows lost its two games against Neerim South by an average of 118 points; in last week’s clash, an understrength Longwarry outfit cut that to 56 points.

Against Ellinbank in 2023, the average margin was 73 points, compared to the 13-point margin on Saturday.

“It’s a pretty young team so it will come with time,” Granger added.

“They need to get more game time under their belt and to be able to get some leaders along the way.

“It’s a massive help when you get guys back who go and play a higher standard of football and then bring that knowledge back and help out.

“That was definitely one thing we knew would help us move in the right direction.”

Another massive challenge awaits on Saturday against reigning premiers Buln Buln, but regardless of the outcome, the Crows are on the way up and it has made the town whole again.

“That period took a big chunk out of Longwarry so we’re rising up from the Ashes – certainly, we’re hoping to,” Van Der Heyden said.

Elsewhere in the EDFL on Saturday: Luke James also brought up the 1000-goal milestone with a six-goal haul on Saturday in Nilma Darnum’s 16.13 109 to 10.12 72 victory over Poowong.

James needed four to bring up the milestone and did it in the first half, cuing spectators to storm the field and celebrate with him.

Patrick Ireland filled his boots with six as Buln Buln overpowered Nyora by 104 points, while Neerim South beat Catani by 126 points and Trafalgar defeated Yarragon 10.5 65 to 7.6 48.