THIS year, Sydney doesn't hope. It believes.
The Swans believe in the strides they made throughout a second pre-season. They believe in each member of the playing group. They believe their coaches can bring those players along.
They believe they can be a force.
That's not to say this season has gone off without a hitch. Coming off a winless debut campaign last year, there have been more losses and injuries along the way. But building a place that people want to be has been the overarching focus.
Walking into the club's slick new facility, a stone's throw from the SCG, Sydney's welcoming, generous nature is felt instantly.
Visitors are immediately greeted by a large, high-ceilinged indoor field, often with a player practising their kicking or a kids' clinic under way on the deck. Overlooking the field from all angles are offices, auditoriums, the gym and a communal lunch area.
Many around the club will point to the set-up of the re-developed Royal Hall of Industries as a key reason why everything is so integrated. But ultimately, it comes down to the people.
The power of people
As the players filter in throughout the day, they arrive with a smile, always ensuring they say hello to staff as they pass office doors, complimenting new haircuts or talking Taylor Swift with those who had been looking forward to her new album.
When organisations discuss a 'one club' approach, the assumption is that it means both women's and men's teams are well integrated. But when Sydney says it is one club, that includes all players, all coaches, and all staff. Those responsible for social media content are as important as the strength and conditioning team, and the coaches are just as important as the players.
"The way I try to describe it to my family is that if you imagine that you are living in the same house, and it's a brother and a sister (relationship)," head coach Scott Gowans told AFL.com.au.
"It's exactly like that, and the boys have started to trickle in and do pre-season and not one of them wouldn't stop and say, 'great game' or 'what happened against Hawthorn?'. They watch it and they're interested.
"I reflect back to our first win, the boys couldn't be happier ... they rushed on the ground and like, that's not manufactured. That's emotion and that's because they're invested in what we do."
Above all, recruiting the right people, is crucial to maintaining a strong culture. This doesn't just mean the most skilful candidates, but also the right personality fit, including a willingness to roll up the sleeves and put the work.
It's why almost all of the playing group opted to stick around this year, despite last year's winless campaign, and also why the likes of Lucy McEvoy, Chloe Molloy and Laura Gardiner joined in the off season.
"I think people wanted to stay for a couple of reasons," Gowans says. "One is the environment. The Sydney environment, it's a mix of the weather, the facility, and the people."
Another driver is the conscious effort to ensure considerations are made to accommodate the players' lives outside of footy. For some, in what is still a largely part-time competition, that is particularly demanding.
Key forward Bec Privitelli is managing a career as a firefighter, including 24-hour shifts on the eve of game day, while teenager Sofia Hurley is particularly dedicated to her education, studying architecture at university.
Part of supporting that balance is simply providing a comforting family environment for those who made the move from another state.
Gowans' wife Jodie is ever-present and always prepared to offer a home-cooked meal or sew a button back on. And player development manager Lindsay Berne relocated her own family to Sydney to nurture the playing group through its club commitments and personal life balance.
But the club's people and what they can offer off-field is not the only drawcard.
"I knew I was here for the long ride," inaugural Sydney best and fairest winner Cynthia Hamilton says.
"I just could tell, with the talent in this club, we were going to come up and we were going to be better.
"And the new girls coming in, they knew. Like Chloe (Molloy), for example, she knew what had happened last year and still, this is a club that people want to come to.
"People want to be here, and I think that's the most important thing. People love this club."
The warmth inside the four walls has also extended to the stands, with thousands regularly showing up for the Swans, including a vocal 5,722 people cheering them on at Henson Park in round nine.
A responsibility to entertain
Scott Gowans' office is simple. Whiteboards adorning two walls where he tracks specific stats during the season and moves the magnets around as he prepares for each week's opponent. An uncluttered desk. A laptop.
The only auxiliary item, really, is a printout of his side's fixture, where he adds a cross or a tick as the season progresses. This year, there have been a lot more ticks than last.
Those ticks, a record score and a potential finals berth is built upon a desire to play aggressive, attacking footy.
"The analogy I use with the players and the parents is that if I'm sitting in my armchair, and I'm 80 years old, looking back, and AFLW's flying … I want to know that I played my part advancing it, not pulling it back," Gowans says.
"It sounds philosophical, but it's so true. You don't want to be the one that's held it back … we need to be courageous to coach here because at times, you're going to look a bit silly.
"And we did; we looked silly against Geelong last year. They annihilated us. But I could still see the little bits and pieces out of the game that I thought were really good. We didn't throw 10 people behind the ball and make it a stoppage game, we just kept taking the game on."
That clear style of play was a drawcard for McEvoy, Molloy, and Gardiner, who could see where the side was headed.
"I hope people look at it and (think that) last year, even though we got beaten, we still played a certain way. I reckon that's a big part of it, and I know Lucy and Chloe brought that up when we chatted to them. That they can see where it could get to," Gowans says.
It is that willingness to be courageous, even if it means looking a bit silly at times, that makes Gowans a strong leader, now flanked by co-captains McEvoy and Molloy.
Leadership in many forms
The pair of stars, recruited from Carlton and Collingwood respectively, weren't simply targeted for their on-field exploits. What they offer in terms of leadership off-field is arguably more important to the side's steady rise.
Vastly different personalities but fitting together beautifully, McEvoy and Molloy play paper-scissors-rock pre-game to decide who will take the coin toss.
Their roles as co-captains are not about the clout it hands them publicly, but rather leading something great. It's about the positive influence they can have on their teammates.
While plaudits for Molloy rolled in for her impressive three-goal showing in round eight against the Western Bulldogs, arguably more significant was her influence on young forward Cynthia Hamilton.
"Today she made me stand up strong and open up my chest a bit," Hamilton said post-game.
"I was bit emotional at half-time and she came up to me and was like, 'it's alright, let it out'. Then she just got around me, put me in the right spot, getting me up and about and I was just able to stand up after half-time after having a bit of an emotional one."
Interactions like this can be seen around the rooms pre-game, as different players walk by their co-captains for a quick word of advice or encouragement.
Others opt to go to Gowans for a pump-up.
Before Sunday's crucial match against Collingwood, the coach threw some suggestions at Hurley as she walked past him in the rooms.
"I'm feeling two goals from you today, Sofia! I'm thinking one on the run, and one from a set shot," he said with a wry smile on his face.
He then offered some suggestions of what celebration Hurley should do if she followed through, with the banter clearly putting the teenager at ease.
Hurley would go on to kick two goals for the game - one on the run and one from a set shot, just like Gowans predicted.
"I think he's a very wise old man," Hamilton says of Gowans with a laugh.
"He has such high standards for us, which I think is excellent, because he knows what we're capable of and it gives us the power to show him what we can do."
Above all, the standard for leadership at the Swans is set by CEO Tom Harley, who can be seen at every game – home and away – offering a helping hand if needed or simply beaming from the sidelines.
"He's so invested in our program, and it just shows how much we mean to this club," Hamilton says. "He comes to our games. He wants to be there."
Almost on cue, Harley walks past a few moments later, ready for a chat with a big smile on his face.
"He is the best leader I've ever worked with," Gowans says.
"He's amazing, and it's because he's a people's person first. He does it with a sense of never being rushed, even though I'm sure if I looked at his calendar, it'd be a nightmare."
An arsenal of coaches
Gowans' leadership is clear when he gathers his coaching staff together. Sitting down to discuss key strategies ahead of the Swans' battle with the Pies, there is an air of calm enthusiasm.
Everyone in the room, from head coach Gowans to the side's runner, has an opinion that is openly welcomed and respected. Gowans is keen to ensure everyone has a voice, but also not afraid to push back on ideas he doesn't think will work.
Former Greater Western Sydney defender Tanya Hetherington joined the club in May as forwards coach, having known Gowans for many years spanning back to their days together as player and coach at Diamond Creek.
Hetherington has had a significant impact on the side's ability to attack this year, bringing out the best footy from some of her forwards. According to Gowans, she is "a head coach in the making".
"I tell her every time I love working with her, you don't realise how lucky we are to have someone that's been so recently in the program," Hamilton says of Hetherington.
"Her knowledge is so powerful. Her game reviews are so good. She doesn't sugar-coat stuff … she'll tell me straight-up how it is, and I love that."
Sydney premiership hero Nick Davis has also joined the program as a senior assistant coach this year, with an infectious passion for the side's potential.
"Not so good at answering emails,” laughs Gowans. "We're working on that."
Another former Swan, Colin O'Riordan, has also come on board this year, working to instil a strong defensive strategy over the coming years.
Then there's Bron Gulden, the mother of men's star Errol and the one holdover from last season's assistant coaching panel, who is largely focused on defence and player development.
Back to belief
Amidst it all, everything comes back to belief.
It was belief that had the playing group digging in and returning early for pre-season in an effort to get better, because the structures around them would allow that to happen if they put in the work.
"What we set up and sold … the vision was obviously something they all still believe in," Gowans says.
"I probably have a blind faith in what I do. But I'm super confident, and I think you have to be."
The belief in what they are creating as a unit is clear, and this year is rewarding the effort with on-field results.
Heading into Sunday's clash with Fremantle, the final game of the 2023 AFLW season, the Swans remain a live chance for finals.
It's been a remarkable turnaround from the only winless side in season seven, and something even the most die-hard Swans fans must see to believe.