SOUTH Fremantle might have qualified for the WAFL finals from second position for a fourth consecutive year, but given the changeover in his squad from 12 months ago, coach Todd Curley is proud of the performance and looking forward to what lies ahead.
South Fremantle spent four years out of finals action after losing the first semi-final to Subiaco in 2011 but then in Curley's second season in charge in 2016, they finished the home and away in second position on the ladder.
The Bulldogs would go on to lose the preliminary final to Peel Thunder and then the last two years would follow suit with preliminary final exits to Subiaco and West Perth respectively over the past two seasons.
It appeared it might be the end of the era at the end of 2018 of this South Fremantle group too with Ashton Hams, Ben Saunders, Ryan Cook, Cory Dell'Olio, Shane Hockey and Jarrod Parry retiring, and then Matthew Parker and Marlion Pickett ending up in the AFL system.
From the team that played in that preliminary final last year, seven players are no longer at the Bulldogs and that's a significant turnover when you consider the quality among those who have departed.
But Curley was always confident the Bulldogs could still flourish in 2019 with the likes of Jake Florenca, Chad Pearson, Zac Dent, Brandon Donaldson, Noah Strom, Kyle Russell, Caleb Datson, Zac De San Miguel, Tom Blechynden, Daniel Cabassi, Seaton Thompson and Josh Collard all ready to step up.
The end result has been South Fremantle once again finishing the 2019 home and away season in second position on the ladder to earn the hosting rights for this Saturday's qualifying final against Claremont at Fremantle Community Bank Oval.
With that next tier of players having stood up and then Mason Shaw standing tall in attack kicking 49 goals, Brock Higgins carrying the ruck and Haiden Schloithe, Jacob Dragovich and Steven Verrier having outstanding seasons in the midfield, there has been a lot for Curley to like from the Bulldogs.
The fact that they have now finished in second spot for a fourth consecutive is a commendable achievement and one that Curley is rightly proud of his players for.
"It's a good reward for the players I think. It's a completely new group probably this year compared to what we've had in the past so that has made it pleasing that we've been able to bring in some young guys that have been in our program for a couple of years without playing a lot of league footy," Curley said.
"We lost a lot of experienced guys which has made the second tier have to stand up. We are a different group and we're looking forward to this finals campaign. It has been pleasing what we've done for four years now but our focus is on what's ahead."
Curley quickly turned his attention to playing Claremont in the qualifying final with a spot in the second semi-final against Subiaco up for grabs.
And while he knows Tigers coach Darren Harris well from their time together at West Perth, Curley knows it's the players that will decide what happens ultimately come Saturday afternoon.
"I know Harro well, I know Geoff Valentine well too. We'll always be mates and former teammates and all that sort of stuff, but you more worry about the team and the players. It's not about what the coaches do to be honest," he said.
"By the time you get to this time of year, 99 per cent of your preparation is done. We'll get our boys as fit and ready to go as we can, and I'm sure they will put out a really good account of themselves."
While South Fremantle's reserves haven’t qualified for finals in 2019, there is plenty of pressure on for spots in the Bulldogs team.
There were Tom Blechynden, Kyle Hamersley, Daniel Cabassi, Andre Coutinho, Zane Sumich, Tom Vandeleur, Trent Reed, Chris Ah Siu and Glenn Byron in the reserves last week against West Perth who continued to put their hands up for selection too.
For Curley, it's a good problem to have to have so much depth at the right of the year with the majority of the group up and running without too many injuries with only Brendan Verrier, Caleb Datson, Regan Spooner and Adam McIntosh unavailable.
"We've probably played about 35 players all year and we've had some young guys play this week, and experienced guys so we have a bit more availability now than we had through the middle of the year," Curley said.
"It's always tough to select teams and leave blokes out, and it's a little bit tougher when it's finals time because everyone wants to play. But we are about the team and not the individual, and the 22 that we pick everyone will support and get around them.
"Hopefully they do that job for that week and then you pick another team the week after to win that game. The strength of your squad is always important."
Without Cory Dell'Olio, Ben Saunders, Matthew Parker or even Ashton Hams with him up forward in 2019, Mason Shaw has produced a terrific season kicking 49 goals including six last week against West Perth.
That saw him only miss the Bernie Naylor Medal by two goals behind former colts premiership teammate Ben Sokol at Subiaco.
Curley couldn’t be happier with the way he has taken on that extra responsibility in 2019.
"He got some score on the board for us obviously but he has been really good for us all the way through," he said.
"The last few weeks he has played a bit of a different role for us but has still contributed really well to our score while not kicking those big bags individually.
"He's had a great year and he got the reward this week with some score for himself but he is pretty clear that he's not too fussed about individual awards. It would have been great if he got a part of the leading goalkicker, but he's pretty focused on what's ahead anyway."
In hindsight by entering the qualifying final last year after finishing the home and away season with soft kills against Swan Districts, Perth and East Fremantle, and then beating West Perth by 98 points in the first final might have not quite been ideal preparation the Bulldogs needed.
They ended up losing the second semi-final to Subiaco and then preliminary final to West Perth, but entering the 2019 finals after tough games against the third placed Claremont and fourth placed West Perth has Curley feeling much better about the preparation this time around.
"It's definitely better preparation in terms of the games than we had last year. I think last year our last couple of games were against teams that were down the bottom," Curley said.
"But now we've had a couple of really competitive hit outs and even Peel the week before, they just beat Perth this week so they were a well-structured team who are hard to beat.
"It's great that we got a win, we finish second and now we move on to the finals and it's a new season. This is why you really spend the time all year trying to qualify. We're really happy with where we are sitting."