SOUTH Fremantle returned to the WAFL finals in 2016 and got all the way to a preliminary final, and with the majority of the playing group back coach Todd Curley is looking for further growth from the Bulldogs.
When Curley was appointed South Fremantle coach ahead of the 2015 season, he was given the task of returning the Bulldogs to finals action.
They had not won a final since the 2009 grand final triumph or qualified for the finals since 2011 so the Bulldogs were looking to return to being a contender where they were so used to being with John Dimmer as coach.
Following a year of developing and feeling out in 2015, Curley guided South Fremantle to a second place finish at the end of the home and away season last year. The Bulldogs went on to beat West Perth in the qualifying final before falling at the hands of grand finalists Subiaco and Peel Thunder.
It was a strong showing all season by the Bulldogs and coming into 2017, the majority of that core group is back for another crack at it while emerging leaders Adam McIntosh and Jarrod Parry will be returning from long-term injuries.
Young ruckman Jake Solomon has also arrived from East Fremantle while the Bulldogs also welcome back 2009 premiership small forward and dual leading goalkicker Cory Dell'Olio after his enforced layoff in 2016.
Curley couldn’t have been more impressed with the commitment the Bulldogs playing group displayed coming back for pre-season and right the way through over summer.
With the season to begin next Saturday against Subiaco at Fremantle Community Bank Oval, Curley is looking forward to see his team pick off from where they left off in 2016.
"They certainly came back in better shape than they have in the past so that’s probably a bit of maturity within the group. They’re really driven and they know they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them to qualify and to get themselves back in a situation to have another chance," Curley said.
"Nothing will change from that part. We’ll have a crack at qualifying as quick as we can and hopefully that’s halfway through the year or three quarters of the way through the year.
"But qualify firstly and then I think having not played finals for a while, they learned a fair bit last year that you’ve got to be at your best on the day in finals or you come up short. You’ve got to take your chances."
The major change over this pre-season for South Fremantle was the fact that for the first time in a number of years they started training a little later having gone deep into September by making the preliminary final.
Overall things with the pre-season program haven’t changed too much and Curley has enjoyed the things they've put in place and done together as a group.
"We have to start again but we had a good summer and pre-season seems like it goes forever so I think the players are pretty keen to get into some games too. We’re all involved to be involved in games so it's an exciting time with the season pretty close," he said.
"The main thing was that we finished a month later than we have for few years so that pushed the start date back a little bit, but we haven’t changed a hell of a lot.
"We have tried to get away a couple of times and went to Boddington for the camp which went well. But as always we just try and prepare as best we can to be as fit and available, and get as many as we can ready for Round 1. I think we’ll be OK."
The Bulldogs' playing group is also reasonably healthy looking ahead to Round 1. Ruckman Brock Higgins is still working back to full fitness after off-season leg surgery. He will be touch and go for league selection to open the season but he will be out there in one form or another.
Parry and McIntosh are still working their way back too from knee and leg injuries respectively last year, but Curley is happy with the overall health of his squad coming into the new season.
"There is a few but they are all pretty close, so it looks like we probably have just about everyone available for the third week of the pre-season," Curley said.
"We’ve got this one and then we have a week off and then we play Claremont. By that game we should have just about everyone. You don’t take any chances this time of year. The vast majority of the squad have done a large portion of pre-season which is good."
The Bulldogs' forward-line was their great strength last year made up of Ben Saunders, Mason Shaw, Zac Strom, Steven Edwards, Blaine Johnson, Haiden Schloithe and captain Ryan Cook.
They will be buoyed with the return of Dell'Olio and Curley is pleased to have limited the departures during the off-season.
"He (Dell'Olio) is mentally obviously very fresh and he is training well. He is being really smart and we’ve been pretty cautious with him as well about how we integrate him back in. But he has prepared really well and he's a really experienced player, and a quality player so it’s good to have him back," he said.
"There’s always still a fair bit of turnover but our core senior group have stayed together but we’ve got a real injection from the colts this year with up to a dozen that have come through.
"They have trained well so there is a couple that put their hand up early, and we might have a look at them early. But we’re in good shape we think but you never know until it all starts for real."
Curley and the Bulldogs have also seen little reason to make significant changes to the coaching staff or leadership group.
But Curley is looking forward to see how new leadership group additions Ben Saunders, Mason Shaw and Chris Luff grow with the increased responsibility.
"There’s a couple of little changes but Cook was obviously out and out unanimous voted captain. He has grown into a very good leader and Josh Pullman has around him," Curley said.
"I think there’s seven in the leadership group so Ben Sanders gets his chance, Mason Shaw and Chris Luff do too. They have been really good and I think last year we had a lot of injuries to our leaders.
"Ashton Hams missed a fair bit of footy last year, so did Schloithe and that forced us to bring other leaders into the leadership group.
"We think we’ve got quite a broad field of our leadership group. Jarrod Parry will come back in. Adam McIntosh will come back from his broken ankle so we think we are in pretty good shape."