The Herald Women’s Premier League (WPL) has been reduced to seven teams for 2016 after the withdrawal of beaten grand finalists Valentine but the competition itself looks set to be the strongest since the inception of the league in 2009. There has been plenty of player and coaching movement during the off-season. Wallsend, South Wallsend and Warners Bay all finished in the bottom half of the table in their maiden WPL campaigns last year but have recruited well and all appear to be set for much stronger showings in their second seasons. Merewether United made history in 2015 by becoming the first club to complete the minor premiership-championship double and appear to be the team to beat again. They have lost a couple of key players but have retained the core of their premiership-winning side, which travelled virtually untouched through 2015. Mid North Coast were the surprise packets last year and gave a good account of themselves in the semi-finals but they have sustained some heavy losses and will need to survive on youth and enthusiasm this year. Several past and present W-league players will be in action throughout the season and a number of Emerging Jets players have started filtering into the WPL sides, which will add strength to the region’s premier women’s competition. Thornton and Adamstown have retained their core group of players and have strengthened and added some depth. Across the board it is looking to be that every week spectators can expect three quality games of ladies football and is shaping as an exciting year for the WPL.
Merewether United FC
Coach: Cassie Koppen
Squad news: United have lost experienced players Sophie Jones, Shannon Day and Jill Cowburn from their championship-winning squad but retain arguably the best goalkeeper in the league in Imogene Tomasone, defender Jamee Ellis, game changer Jane Mcdonald and strike weapon Lori Depczynski. The experience of those four will be key again in 2016.
United have picked up defender Claire Mansfield, who played with the club previously, midfielder Tayla Braithwaite, who has just moved to Newcastle and is rated by coach Cassie Koppen as “one of our most promising signings”, former Jets striker Nikki Jones and former Emerging Jets midfielder Bronte Walters.
What the Coach says: “Obviously losing Sophie is a massive loss for us; she was our players’ player and golden boot for last year. But I am very confident in the ability of Tayla and Bronte as well. We are going to have a big target on us before even starting and that is not something the girls have experienced before. We have spoken about that and not going to let the pressure get to us.”
Bottom line: Merewether have lost a couple of quality players but still look well-drilled and will be hard to break down again with strength across the park and no obvious weaknesses. How they handle the favourites’ tag may prove a factor in their season but they dealt with plenty of pressure in the latter stages of last season with teams gunning for them and are expected to be among the front-runners again.
Adamstown Rosebud FC
Coach: Ben Herron
Squad news: Rosebud have lost leading scorer Lauren Allen, who took up a scholarship in the US last year, and experienced midfielder Mikaela Howell has decided to take the year off after a season interrupted by injuries. Goalkeeper Bec Milller missed the finals through a season-ending injury but is back on deck and they have retained fearless leader Clare Cummings, who was a standout last year, along with a core of young ones who did a good job in 2016. New coach Ben Herron heads the recruitment list. He joins the club after several seasons at the helm of the University of Newcastle’s women’s program. Adamstown have added some attacking punch through Newcastle Jets striker Rhali Dobson and Jasmin Courtenay, who previously played WPL for Lakes and joins Rosebud from a stint playing in Sydney. Herron has also picked up two players from the Central Coast in defender Jorjia Hogg and midfielder Beth Le Gay Brereton plus Emerging Jets player Elodie Dagg, who also plays in the middle of the park, and experienced fullback Serena Carter.
What the Coach says: “From our pre-season so far we look to be going quite well actually. I think that we are still quite a young team, with an average age of just over 20, and we will definitely improve as the season goes on as our girls gain more experience. The girls are all keen and excited to get stuck in.”
Bottom line: Adamstown were a much younger squad than in previous seasons last year but surprised many to be one of the competition pace-setters for the better part of season. Keeping players on the park proved their biggest problem though and they ended up using 34 players throughout the season due to injuries and losses and virtually stumbled into the semi-finals, where they were beaten 8-0 by Valentine. They have added some quality and with a bit more depth should again be there or thereabouts.
Coach: Marc Hingston
Squad news: Wallsend resemble a totally different side for their second season in the league. They have retained WPL player of the year Keely Gawthrop and Ashlee Jones and have strengthened with new coach Marc Hingston bringing playmaker Laura Hall and goalkeeper Bec Saunders with him from South Wallsend. Shannon Day and Sophie Jones played under Hingston at Merewether two seasons ago and have rejoined him at the Red Devils. Wallsend have also gained Newcastle Jets players Jenna Kingsley and Libby Copus-Brown plus Valentine’s MJ Mason, experienced WPL striker Briony Halcombe as well as several Emerging Jets players.
What the Coach says: “We have 21 in the squad and we are strong across the park and everyone contributes. We have not put too much emphasis on results, it is firstly more about effort and improving confidence. We have got ability in the squad and I think if we change the culture and gain confidence results will take care of themselves.”
Bottom line: Wallsend have no shortage of strike weapons and will be strong across the park. They look fast, fit and well-drilled and appear to have plenty of depth. The club’s first year in the top league was a bit of a baptism of fire but they should be well and truly pushing the top four with the squad Hingston has assembled this year.
South Wallsend JSC
Coach: Elyse Bates
Squad news: South Wallsend have lost midfielder Laura Hall and goalkeeper Bec Saunders to Wallsend but have recruited well and look to have addressed a lack of depth and inexperience which proved their downfall last year. Elyce Bates returns to the field after a year out. Predominantly a midfielder Bates has assumed more of a defender’s role in pre-season and has enjoyed the change. They have picked up Jets player Hannah Brewer plus Maddy Searl, Laura Byrnes, Gemma Pearce and Laura Austin all from Valentine. Goalkeeper Connie Osborne returns to the WPL and they will also benefit from having former Australian representative Hayley Crawford in the coaching squad. Former Jets player Stacey Day was also poised to play with Southy but sustained a season-ending knee injury in pre-season.
What the Coach says: “Playing and coaching is not something I have done before so it’s going to be a bit of a challenge to get my head around but I am really looking forward to it. We’ve got a good bunch of girls and over the past couple of weeks we’ve built some confidence and are keen to go out and start well in the first round.”
Bottom line: Bates has bolstered the squad well in the off-season and Southy look poised to make an impact on the league in their second season. They have brought in several quality signings who should complement the younger players around them making the step up from 18s to first grade. They will be in the mix come finals time.
Mid North Coast
Coach: Matt Baker
Squad news: They have lost captain Lauren Avery, sisters Hayley, Olivia and Danielle Burn, Mel Norup and Courtney Fulbrook. Several of the 18s players will step up to the top league and Mid North Coast junior representative Caitlin Fisher has rejoined the club after time away from the game.
What the Coach says: “Lauren is not only a good player but a quality person to have around, so she is a big loss. Mel Norup was one of our best players last year; she was outstanding all year. Courtney Fullbrook was one of the youngest in our squad, but what a talent. To lose Mel, Danielle, Hayley and Lauren was a bit hard to take but several of the 18s have stepped up. The physicality will test us but I’m excited because they are all kids who have come through the ranks and they are all good players.”
Bottom line: Mid North Coast finished in the top four last year and were beaten semi-finalists against Merewether but gave a strong account of themselves throughout the season. Coach Matt Baker was hoping to build on that success but has instead lost several key players and will now rely on a lot of youth in 2016. They will not be easy-beats by any means but they will exist on youth and enthusiasm and depth and inexperience may end up being a telling factor this year.
Thornton Redbacks FC
Coach: Alan Primmer
Squad news: They have lost leader Sophie Milton and Riley Pursehouse but have gained Ashley Vickery and Mel Botham from Wallsend. Goalkeeper Danielle Redding joins the Redbacks from Warners Bay and Emily Blanch has relocated to Newcastle from the Mid North Coast and is also a new addition to the squad. Other than those changes Primmer has retained the core of his squad, which has been slowly building in strength and experience since joining the league two seasons ago.
What the Coach says: “We are aiming a little bit higher this year. We are still a very young squad but we can’t keep using that as an excuse because we are a few years in now. Our defensive structure is one area we’ve been working on. We had about 106 goals scored against us in the first year and around 50 last year. This year we are aiming to cut that in half again.”
Bottom line: Thornton had some very good days and some very bad days last year and inconsistency proved their downfall. Ashley Vickery and Mel Botham are only in their early 20s but add experience to the Thornton side, who should be competitive if they can tighten up in defence. They sustained some heavy losses but also took points off each of the top three sides in 2015. They finished the year with eight draws, which was a very telling statistic.
Warners Bay FC
Coach: Leon Davis
Squad news: Former men’s state league coach Leon Davis answered an SOS to coach Warners Bay through the last round of competition last year and had the young side firing. He has been coaxed into coaching this season and has bolstered this young side with his daughter and Jets player Cassidy Davis, who was the WPL leading scorer last year. Fringe Jets player Adriana Jones has also joined Warners Bay and the pair should add plenty of strike power to the side’s 2016 campaign. Nadja Squires has come across from Valentine and will add plenty of leadership and experience. Warners Bay have also recruited goalkeepers Olivia Sneddon and Niki Dieter as well as a handful of Emerging Jets players and experienced WPL player Hayley McBeath. Among the key players from last year’s squad remaining are Tulia Palozzi, Sass Seaborn and Airlie Davis.
What the Coach says: “We have kept the best players from last year and strengthened all over the park. We’re going to be pretty quick and generally just stronger across the park.”
Bottom line: Davis got the best out of a young and inexperienced Warners Bay side late last year but they lacked depth and basically ran out of legs. He has been on an off-season recruitment drive and Warners Bay appear poised for a much stronger showing in their second year in the elite ladies competition. They should be pushing for a top-four, if not top-two, position.
Sunday, March 13, 2.15pm
Wallsend v South Wallsend, Wallsend Oval
Mid North Coast v Thornton, Taree Zone Field
Merewether v Adamstown, Myamblah Oval
Warners Bay BYE