LIKE many of the teams that missed the now cancelled finals series, Sandringham found itself behind the eight-ball early on as it took a bit of time to get back into the swing of things after the wipeout of 2020.
But it didn’t take long for the wheel to start turning.
The Zebras were brushed aside by reigning premier Richmond in round one but lifted to lead Port Melbourne by 23 points at half-time the following week, only to run out of legs and lose by 26.
The same happened in round three – a 37-point lead against Box Hill became a 30-point defeat – but rookie coach Jake Batchelor had seen enough to know his team could do some damage.
And that they did – winning their first game in round five against a rampaging 4-0 Williamstown, backing it up with two late goals to beat Aspley in Queensland in their only interstate trip and then thrashing Essendon after the first lockdown.
"We started the season slowly, but there was a high chance of that considering we brought in a fair chunk of a new VFL list – we’re still learning about list management, especially with the ‘18 under 22 and only 12 over’ rule," Batchelor said.
"It wasn't a massive surprise it took us a bit of time to get going, but I think after the first three rounds we held onto some momentum and started playing a good brand of football and showed that it stacked up.
"As a coaching group we just reiterated that what we were doing was working, we just needed to do it for longer and we finally did that against Williamstown.
"When you spend a whole pre-season on the other side of the fence and see all the hours the players put in and finally they get rewarded with a win is really pleasing.
"Heading up to Aspley was another one – I don’t think many of the players, especially the VFL-listed ones, had flown interstate for a game of football and it was a good little stint on the plane, there and back within 12 hours and getting the win as well."
Batchelor said the fact he and assistant coaches Trent Dennis-Lane, Chris McKay, Dylan Roberton, Jimmy House and Sam Dunell were all new meant the constant interruptions weren’t as big an issue as they might have been.
"We almost didn’t have anything to go off, so what the year gave us, it was our first year together either way.
"It probably wasn’t the worst thing how it panned out for us because, touchwood, it can’t get much worse than it was this year or last year football wise - I really wish I didn’t say that!
"We put a program in place in pre-season trying to balance the physical and tactical preparation for these players while not increasing the anxiety and stress that comes with playing football at VFL level, and I think by doing that early in pre-season we set ourselves up to maintain a good connection throughout the year.
"The stop-start nature was frustrating but we knew no different and the fact we didn’t play football at all last year, even just getting together for training and the potential to go back to local footy made it easier to work through."
The Zebras’ on-field leaders – playing assistant Dunell, skipper Dan Coffield and vice-captains Goy Lok and Chris Carey – were also a godsend to Batchelor as he settled into a VFL coaching role at just 29, even though he doesn’t feel that young.
"I don’t feel 29, I haven’t felt 29 for five years, but I’ve really enjoyed it," he said.
"My whole playing career was in defence, then as an assistant coach at Frankston I was in the backline and I’ve been a backline development coach, so this is probably the first time I’ve been forced to explore the stoppages and the attacking side of the game and it has been really exciting.
"But my main role is to connect the AFL and VFL-listed players and that’s my main strength as a person, I think I’ve fallen into it not too badly. I’ve still got a long way to go but I like connecting with the players and I’d like to think I’ve done my bit to put them in a good head space to perform, regardless of what level they’ve come from.
"On field our three leaders have been great, they all lead in their individual way and they all play their role for us really well and simplify things. They don’t try to do what they can’t do and are really vocal.
"We’re going to need some more experienced players at VFL level, but those three were sensational and, while not very often they were in the best two or three for us, they played their role and dragged others along as well.
"'Dunners' (Dunell) has been really good – I met him in the Level Three coaching course a couple of years ago and I thought maybe the year off would have rekindled the hunger to play.
"We're currently trying to sort out what the plan is for next year but he was great for us, on field and off field, he just brings a mature perspective to the playing group, which is a good conduit to the coaches.
"I'm really excited for 2022 for some continuity because, like I said, I think we’re on the right path and if we can keep some good players on board and continue to develop them I think we’re in a good spot going forward."
Given the list rules Batchelor mentioned, it was important to bring younger players through, with at least six becoming mainstays of the team and learning from the captains and St Kilda-listed players around them.
Darby Hipwell took to an inside midfielder role like a duck to water despite being young enough to play NAB League for the Sandringham Dragons mid-season, while key defenders Darragh Joyce and Oscar Clavarino found plenty of support from youthful teammates including Tyson Milne, the son of Saints great Stephen.
"Darby has amazed us a little bit with how easily he has adapted to playing senior football," Batchelor said.
"He went back and played Dragons for a couple of weeks and then slotted straight back into our team and looks like he’s played 50 games of VFL football already.
"Hopefully bigger and better things are to come for him in the next couple of years, but while he is at Sandy we’re doing our best to help him develop as a well-rounded player.
"He’s a good inside mid at the moment and we keep putting him in the forward line or the backline to give him a little taste of what is out there, and that’s going to make us a better team and him a better player.
"Tyson Milne, Oscar Lewis and Anthony Seaton are three young emerging leader types – they’re great people and they want to learn, but they’re all extremely competitive and hungry for success.
"We feel like we’ve got a good crop coming through, we’re nowhere near there yet but with the right program and consistency and continuity we can be a good team going forward."
4-5 win-loss, 13th
What went right: Showed some signs of what they were capable of with big wins over Williamstown, Richmond and Essendon at home, while their only interstate trip was also a big plus coming from behind deep into time-on to beat Aspley. Saw some terrific development from their young players and got some valuable experience for their totally new coaching group.
What went wrong: Started the season slowly by losing their first three games, including giving up leads of 23 and 37 points which proved fatal to their finals hopes once the season started to be truncated. Looked like making a late run, but a poor performance in what turned out to be their last game against Carlton put paid to that.
Best and fairest prediction: Luke Dunstan was unstoppable when at Trevor Barker Oval, but only played four games. Of those who spent most of the season in yellow and black, Oscar Clavarino, Sam Dunell and Paul Hunter all had strong years and should fight it out.
Best young players: Plenty to like here, with Darby Hipwell having an outstanding season on the ball, Finlay Bayne and Cody Henness showing plenty of promise, and Anthony Seaton, Tyson Milne and Oscar Lewis gelling well in defence, while several others got multiple games in.
Coach status: Jake Batchelor re-signed for 2022 earlier in the week and will return for his second season. “I’m really looking forward to seeing what I’ve learnt as a coach and what my assistants have learnt as coaches over the past 12 months,” he said. “We’re (already) in preparation mode and the excitement factor of the unknown has come around again, even though we’re still in lockdown.”
Keep track of your VFL team via our all new VFL Match Centre, which features live scores, team and player stats, match timeline, events summary and even Fantasy points. Check it out here.
Let’s Band Together with TAC. We all have someone to drive safely for.