BY NATHAN DOLE
LADDER leaders Sandhurst and Castlemaine meet in Saturday’s eighth round of A-grade netball action in the Bendigo Bank Bendigo FNL season.
In pursuit of a fifth consecutive premiership, Sandhurst has answered all challenges to be seven-nil and perched on top of the ladder.
Castlemaine is on a four-game winning streak and a season record of five wins, one loss, and a draw.
The depth of the Sandhurst squad was on show in last Saturday’s victory on Gisborne’s court at Gardiner Reserve.
Although the maroon and blue was without Ruby Turner, injured, and Imogen Sexton, overseas, it defended brilliantly to win 38-32 in a hard-fought contest between two of the league’s strongest teams.
Key players for the Tamara Gilchrist-coached Sandhurst include Bec Smith in attack, Charlotte Sexton in defence, and captain Meg Williams in the centre.
There is also the experience of goaler Kelsey Meade and dual Betty Thompson medallist as league fairest and best in Heather Oliver at goal defence.
A superb run by Castlemaine in ’23 included the 55-39 win on its court at Camp Reserve against Kangaroo Flat in round five.
Jointly coached by Gary Cooke and Fiona Fowler, also a star at goal defence, Castlemaine struck back from a 35-43 loss at home to Gisborne in the second round to win its next three matches.
The league declared the A-grade netball match a draw, so two points were awarded to the Magpies and Tigers.
Castlemaine was back on court last Saturday to score a 71-36 victory against Golden Square.
Players to watch for the Magpies include Shaid Sasalu at goal defence and Mikaela Vaughan in attack.
There have been changes to both line-ups, but Castlemaine can gain plenty of belief from last season’s stunning victory against Sandhurst.
The Magpies upstaged the Dragons, 47-46 in the 18th round of the ’22 season at Castlemaine’s Camp Reserve.
Sandhurst won its next three finals to claim the premiership cup once again.
Another crucial match in Saturday’s round eight action will be at Kennington’s Harry Trott Oval where South Bendigo takes on Gisborne.
The Jannelle Hobbs-coached South Bendigo dominated last Saturday’s match at Maryborough’s Princes Park to record a 68-18 victory.
The Bloods have a win-loss tally of 4-2 and drew their most recent game at Harry Trott Oval with Strathfieldsaye.
Pressure in all thirds of the court will be much higher against a Gisborne line-up on the rebound from defeat.
The Tarryn Rymer-coached Gisborne took it right up to Sandhurst last round, but some turnovers proved costly.
After a hard-fought 41-38 win on Eaglehawk’s court at Canterbury Park, Kyneton is back home to face Kangaroo Flat.
Victory for the Dianne Guest-Oakley coached Kyneton would draw it two points closer to Kangaroo Flat and also keep the heat on the fifth-placed South Bendigo.
Beating the Kangaroos who were runner-up in ’22 will not be an easy task.
The Jayden Cowling-coached Kangaroo Flat have been beaten by Sandhurst and Castlemaine, but showed in a 44-42 win against Gisborne what it is capable of.
Kangaroo Flat’s mid-court and attack was superb in an 80-37 win at Strathfieldsaye’s Triple M Park last round.
Eyes of Golden Square and Eaglehawk will be firmly set on ending their winless run as they take to the court at Fur Life Oval in Golden Square’s Wade Street.
The Benita Swatton-coached Golden Square had a tough match at Castlemaine last round.
The Hawks made a brilliant final quarter fightback in their home game against Kyneton.
A 38-41 result was clearly one of the best performances from the Kylie Piercy-coached line-up from the Borough this season.
Maryborough is back home at Princes Park to take on Strathfieldsaye.
A win for the Jordan Macilwain-coached Maryborough will put it above Strathfieldsaye on the ladder.
The Steph Freemantle-coached Strathfieldsaye will be determined to mark win number three and keep the pressure on the fifth and sixth-placed Bloods and Tigers.
Standings in the Bendigo FNL’s A-grade netball competition:
Sandhurst 215 per cent, 28 points; Castlemaine 136, 22; Gisborne 169, 20; Kangaroo Flat 148, 20; South Bendigo 132, 18; Kyneton 104, 14; Strathfieldsaye 84, 10; Maryborough 65, 8; Eaglehawk 60, 0; Golden Square 38, 0.
Meanwhile, selectors have finalised the Bendigo FNL’s open team to contest the upcoming Association championships in Melbourne.
The BFNL’s open and 17-and-under squads will compete against teams from across the state on June 18 at the State Netball Centre in Parkville.
Bendigo’s open team includes six of Sandhurst’s premiership-winning stars, plus representatives from Gisborne, Kangaroo Flat and South Bendigo.
The Bendigo FNL open team is being coached by Kangaroo Flat’s Jayden Cowling, with Strathfieldsaye’s Steph Freemantle as assistant coach.
Goalers are Claudia Mawson from Gisborne, Kangaroo Flat’s Abbey Ryan, and Sandhurst’s Rebecca Smith.
The mid-court rotation is Sandhurst clubmates Shae Clifford and Meg Williams, along with Gisborne’s Kirby Elliot, and Kangaroo Flat’s Ashley Ryan.
A strong defence includes South Bendigo’s Alicia Gladman joining forces with Heather Oliver, Charlotte Sexton and Sophie Shoebridge from Sandhurst.