By sports editor Russell Bennett
If 2019 was all about learning how to win consistently for the Tooradin-Dalmore senior footy side, then 2020 will be about learning how to truly contend.
The Seagulls had been smashed from pillar to post for years in the old South East Football Netball League, and its previous incarnation as the Casey Cardinia league.
There’s no point sugar-coating it.
But upon their return to West Gippsland this year – the name with which so much of their history is intertwined – the Gulls were renewed.
Straight away, they were competing against other country towns – not growth corridor giants.
No longer was the task about damage-limitation – it was about going toe-to-toe with sides, matching them, and beating them.
But now Lachie Gillespie’s men need to learn how to maintain their focus and intensity for longer during games – to not let up when the foot is on the throat.
They finished third on the WGFNC senior ladder and advanced through to the preliminary final against Cora Lynn, but they were soundly beaten.
The Gulls faced the Cobras three times in 2019 – including in two finals – and the results of those games highlight where their improvement needs to come from.
They lost to the Cobras by 45 points in the season-opener, and by 50 points in the preliminary final – but beat them by 42 points in the qualifying final.
That gap between their best and worst needs to reduce if they’re to take noticeable steps forward from 2020.
But Gillespie and his charges are confident of doing just that, knowing what’s in store.
“This year was one where we just took our time to find out exactly where we sit in the scheme of things,” he said.
“I guess we were learning on our feet a bit. We were obviously strong in some areas, and quite weak in others.
“We were good with our ball movement and defended quite well in general – our game plan held up quite well in that regard. But having said that, on the flipside were the things we didn’t do as well – and our inconsistency was certainly an issue.
“Good sides are never always on top of their game, but they’re at a high level for two hours and we just weren’t there for long enough. I think that’s something we have to work on over a period of time – as a coaching staff, and a playing list.
“A lot of it was between the ears for our guys. We won 12 games for the home and away season and it would probably take two years combined to win that many in the SEFNL.”
After finishing third this year, Gillespie made it clear the Gulls aren’t interested in going backwards in 2020.
“We want to be a really consistent performer,” he said.
“We aimed at the start of the year, for 2019, to be a top three side.
“We look at our list and where everyone else is at, and we still feel as though we should compete at the top end.”
Gillespie said his club was thrilled to be part of the WGFNC.
“We go out there and just enjoy playing footy,” he said.
“We won’t win them all, but we really enjoy who we play against. They’re great people, and the competition is just an exciting one to be a part of because it’s growing.
“I’m really proud of the West Gippy competition and where it’s heading.
“On any given Saturday you can lose a game because things are so tight. That’s fantastic, and it looks like it’s only going to tighten up even more in 2020.
“I think the league, itself, is a selling point. People know it’s a good standard, it’s still a country football netball competition, and there’s plenty of time to have fun while also testing yourself and really trying to get the best out of yourself.
“I definitely found it a lot easier this year to recruit.”
Clearly, the Gulls were found wanting for height in the key positions – particularly the ruck – at stages throughout 2019.
And that’s an area they’ve already addressed, directly, with one of their new recruits – with Gillespie also indicating there could be more help on the way.
Piva Wright comes to Tooradin after a stint at the Doveton Eagles in the SFL.
The key forward, a former star at both the Dandenong Stingrays and Noble Park, brings a wealth of experience to the Gulls’ nest.
“He’s a pretty experienced footballer now, at a high level as well, and he’s a really nice guy – which is more important than anything else,” Gillespie said.
“He’s really keen on helping to develop our younger guys too, so it’s not only about what he gives us on the field – great hands from a big, solid guy who could play forward, back, or in the ruck. He gives us real versatility, which we’re so excited by.
“With us, you’re a small part of a bigger machine so we like to be really flexible around that. We won’t lock Piva into a set position.
“With all our recruits, we’re just rapt with what they provide to us off-field as much as on – they’re really good guys who just want to buy-in to our culture.”
Another such recruit is Narre Warren favourite son Stewart Scanlon, who comes to the Gulls with a premiership pedigree.
“He’s another ripping bloke who’s come across for a bit of a change,” Gillespie said.
“I think that’s great for him. We know he’s a great forward, and we’re starting to put together a really dangerous forward line, which is nice.
“We know that if you look at his average of goals per game over the past four to five years, it’s pretty good.
“He can do that for us, but he’s also pretty flexible and we can push him up and have him play a bit of midfield or even a wing if we need.
“We’re rapt to have Stew – he’s going to make our forward line even more potent, and he’ll provide some great leadership from a guy who’s been around a lot of success.”
Brady Egan is another of the Gulls’ signings, coming across from Rye.
Egan was formerly on the Fox8 program ‘The Recruit’ but has been desperately unlucky on the injury front in recent times – particularly in regards to concussion.
He’s another looking for a fresh start.
“He’s really close mates with Deany (Andrew Dean) and we just want to get him back playing footy, so there’s no huge expectation being placed on his shoulders – we just want him to come in and enjoy himself,” Gillespie explained.
“He’s had all the right checks done, so he’s in a really good position moving forward.
“He’s got a lot of confidence now that he’s going to be fine. I’m just really hopeful that he can go out there and have fun again, and over a period of time he’ll gain some consistency and then he’ll start to back himself in a bit more, and then we’ll see some pretty good footy from him.
“Sometimes we get a bit wrapped up in our own little worlds and get a bit close-minded to how lucky we really are.
“Really, he’s not been able to play footy at all, and that’s created a huge hole because footy is such a big part of his life.
“He’s just excited to be able to do a pre-season in the first place, so that gives the group some real energy and some perspective – not to take it all for granted.”
Taylor Stratton has also joined the nest as a playing midfield coach.
A natural leader who can push forward as well as spending key minutes through the midfield, he wants to continue to develop his coaching skills as part of the Tooradin group.
The Gulls have also re-signed the vast majority of their 2019 senior group, but some change is inevitable, and they’ve bid farewell to former captain Matt Livermore and Nick Lang, who’ve both returned to their home club Emerald – where Livermore is a premiership captain.
“They’ve been fantastic players for us, and have played a key role in helping to get us where we are,” Gillespie said.
“They’ve been with us when we’ve gone through a lot of grief as a club, and Matty Liv has been a fantastic captain for us. He’s been rock-solid all the way through, as has Nick Lang. He definitely doesn’t owe us anything either – he’s just looking for a change.
“Both those boys have left for the right reasons, and that’s a really positive thing.
“They’d be welcomed back in a heartbeat – they’re great people, and we’re really thankful for everything they’ve done for us.”
Looking forward, Gillespie has forecast another couple of signings – likely in the ruck and on-ball department – before finalising the list for 2020.
And, crucially, the Gulls look like fielding an under-16s side next season.
“For anyone looking for a game of footy in the fourths, come to Tooradin-Dalmore,” Gillespie said.
“We know it’s really important to the league, and to our club, to have the under-16s up and running. If we’ve got both those and the under-18s, we’ll have that real pathway there.”
Any players interested in joining either the under-18s or under-16s at Tooradin-Dalmore are encouraged to call Jason Hill on 0411 739 725.