The Maitland Saints will be without star duo Wade Beard and Jim Taranto for their entry into the Black Diamond AFL's top flight.
Beard, the club’s 2017 Black Diamond Cup premiership captain and leading goal scorer, damaged his ACL in a motorbike accident and is expected to miss the season after surgery.
His best mate Taranto, who won the medal for best on ground in the grand final and a two-time competition best and fairest, is to have surgery on a shoulder injury which has hampered him for the past two seasons.
Saints president Kevin Greaves said it was going into the expanded top-flight Black Diamond Cup, but it gave coach David Ross plenty of time to work on new combinations and lay the challenge to the team’s younger brigade to take the next step.
On the plus, star midfielder Dustin Spriggs is back in full training after missing last year’s grand final win against Singleton with a knee injury.
“Apart from a couple of retirements and Wade and Jimmy’s injuries we go into this year’s competition with last year’s squad largely intact,” Greaves said.
“We really benefitted from the experience of Dustin and the boys who came across from the Cardiff Hawks last year.
“They are back and looking forward to playing in the Black Diamond Cup again. The majority of our team was very young either just in their 20s or teenagers straight out of the under-17s.
“Even someone like Andrew Thompson who came to us from Nelson Bay is only in his early 20s as are the Damico brothers Aidan and Luke who we expect even bigger things from this year.
“A lot of those who have just turned 20 or 21 such as Pat McMahon, Mitchell Greaves, Hayden Taylor and Kaiden Ritchie are ready to take far more prominent roles and it looks like a few of the boys who came through juniors with them may return to the club after a break from footy.”
The teenage contingent includes last year’s vice-captain Riley Newstead, who is destined to become one of the competition’s leading midfielders, and Harrison Harbrow.
“We’re probably looking to give the finals a shot and being probably a mid-ladder team in our first year,” Greaves said “It won’t be long before we are challenging for titles in the men’s and women’s comps.
“Our girls made the finals for the first time last year and they’ve had a great start to the pre-season with a number of new players also joining the squad.”
The season opens on April 7. Maitland’s first home game at the expanded Max McMahon Oval is on April 14 against Gosford.