Geelong players celebrate their first win. (Photo: Geelong Cats; Design: Will Cuckson)

Ahead of the entry of four new teams into the AFLW competition, The Inner Sanctum is looking back at the stories of the entries of the six past expansion teams. This is The New Frontier, where players, coaches and staff broke new ground and created something from nothing.

Geelong was one of the two inaugural expansion teams alongside North Melbourne. From day one, the proud history of one of Australia’s oldest football clubs was front and centre.

The club was one of the 13 to place a bid for a license in the first year of the competition, but was ultimately knocked back for immediate entry. Granted a provisional license however, the Cats joined the competition in 2019; season three.

AFL Chief Executive Officer Gillon McLachlan saw both Geelong and North Melbourne as important growth corridors for women’s football, in regional Victoria and Tasmania respectively.

In preparation for their AFLW debut, the Cats became a part of the restructured VFL Women’s competition, where the foundations of what they would become were laid.

Inaugural players including Renee Garing, Bec Goring, Anna Teague, Richelle Cranston, Danielle Higgins and Maddie Boyd helped the club build to a 2018 Grand Final appearance.

While the club would lose to bitter traditional rivals Hawthorn, it made the case for Geelong’s ability to build a competitive program.

More than anything though, those VFLW seasons gave the chance for an eclectic group to grow their bond before even playing a single AFLW game.

Kate Darby and Maddy Keryk are two such players that benefitted from this. Receiving limited opportunities at Carlton and eventually getting delisted, they found their new homes at Geelong.

“The season that we had with the VFL group, the bond that we all had was so so strong from the get go,” Darby told The Inner Sanctum.

“I think that was massive moving forward – keeping a group of us all together down at the Cats. It was so nice to have something that we’d started altogether and then we were able to keep it together.

“It was a huge part of going into that first AFLW season. Especially as an expansion side, having a lot of familiar faces and a lot of good vibes around the group was really beneficial around the VFL.”

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Keryk, Darby, and Jordan Ivey all joined Geelong from Carlton after playing with their new side in the VFLW.

None had truly found their place at the Blues. Keryk was named vice-captain in the club’s inaugural season, but would only play two games in 2018.

Darby and Ivey, however, only managed four games between them in their time at Princes Park.

Despite still being in the process of building at VFLW level, the players responded to the culture of the newly formed Geelong immediately.

“After I left Carlton, there was no promises,” Keryk told The Inner Sanctum.

“[The 2018] VFL season had already started when I went down to Geelong and started playing VFL down there. It seemed like my best option at the time, and I thought a fresh start would be good for me and my football.

“I went down there and started playing my VFL football. From when I first came in, all the girls were really welcoming, and the club made me feel right at home right away.”

After a promising 2017, finishing two games out of finals with an 8-6 win/loss record, the Cats advanced all the way to the season decider the following year.

For Darby, who had only recently taken up the game, she benefitted from gaining continuity alongside her new teammates.

“In that VFL side, we got to the grand final because we all played in such a team way,” she said.

“We all really cared for each other and wanted to spend as much time as we could with each other.

“Straight away when I got there, the friendliness and the culture [was great]. I felt a bit silly because they thought I was coming in with a bit of experience and knowledge, where in my head I was thinking ‘I’ve only played two games in my life!’

“It was really good for me, having that fresh start. I felt like they had a bit of belief in my ability.

“When I wasn’t playing at the Blues, there wasn’t a VFL league for me to go and play in at the time when I didn’t get selected.

“I really just wanted some game time, and I was having so much fun getting some consistency in games and learning so much more during those.”

To the next level

After signing inaugural players Mel Hickey, Richelle Cranston, Anna Teague and Erin Hoare in May, the club was well and truly on its way to a solid AFLW foundation.

Alongside Keryk, Darby and Ivey, inaugural coach Paul Hood and the list management team pulled in a mix of experienced players from elsewhere, Geelong VFLW players, and promising youngsters.

Now captain Meg McDonald and Aasta O’Connor crossed over from the Bulldogs, Phoebe McWilliams from the Giants, Hickey and Cranston from the Demons.

With three top 10 picks, the Cats then drafted a powerful midfield core of Nina Morrison, Sophie Van De Heuvel and Rebecca Webster.

Geelong’s inaugural group of draftees. (Photo: Geelong Cats)

Darby credited Hood and VFLW captain Bec Goring for establishing a strong drive and connection amongst the group from the first day of pre-season.

“Hoody just had such a good relationship with us all,” Darby said.

“Culture wise, Geelong has always been known to have such a fantastic culture, and I think that started from the get go. The whole club got around the idea of having a women’s team.

“It made it that anyone that came in was a part of things, and it grew from that. We had some players come in that had been around the [AFLW] system for a while; Aasta O’Connor, Melissa Hickey, Meg McDonald.

“These girls brought some great knowledge and some differences around the group, but we also felt like they weren’t coming in and taking over. We had a good, solid thing that they added some real positivity to.”

Having been a part of the first ever AFLW game, Keryk knew what to expect leading into the Round 1, 2019 match-up with Collingwood.

A proud club with an over 160-year history, the importance of the occasion was made abundantly clear to the playing group.

“There was such huge hype in the club, and around everywhere for the first game,” Keryk reflected.

“A big crowd came in that night, and we had people coming in and talking to us before the game, and everyone was getting presented with their jumpers.

“A number of people were coming in and talking to us in the week throughout about the significance of the hoops, and what it means to be a Geelong person. There was a lot that went into particularly that first match, and a lot of build up.”

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First game, first win

Hosted in front of a raucous 18,000 strong home crowd at Kardinia Park, Geelong would run out for premiership points for the first time against Collingwood.

Just like North Melbourne, Geelong would be facing up against a team that had been in the AFLW from the start. Even though the Pies had finished sixth the season before, no one was taking them lightly.

Expectations were unknown leading into that Saturday night, the opening round of the season.

Running up the race to the cheers of the Geelong faithful though, the newbies backed themselves all the way in.

“It was just pure excitement,” Darby recounted of the first game.

“At the end of pre-season, you’re feeling pretty good. You’re having those feel-good sessions and you’re hitting those targets that you’ve worked on and you’re thinking ‘if we play this kind of footy we can take it to anyone’.

“We did have that confidence that we could take it up to Collingwood despite the fact they’ve been in the league longer than us.

“The excitement of having that home game, and knowing that we were playing for this town for the first time as a women’s group, there was so much of a good vibe around.

“I remember the moment Bob Gartland presented us all with our debut jumpers and spoke to us at the start.

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“We’d heard from so many people, people that are so important to the club, and you could see how much it meant to them as well.

“We just knew how special the experience was going to be, regardless of what happened on the day, but as soon as we crossed that line, it was game on, and we were going to do whatever we could to get that win.”

It was a tight, tense tussle for Geelong in its first AFLW match, perhaps a sign to come in future match-ups with Collingwood.

Both sides kicked just a goal apiece in the first quarter, before the Cats took their chances in the second term to go into half time 11 points clear. But with the Pies answering back with two of their own in the third, a historic ending was imminent.

Neither team would score another goal for the match, with the Cats desperately making one unsuccessful foray after another into the forward 50.

Number one draft pick Nina Morrison would be the hero, kicking the winning point before the Cats clung on as the Pies made one final forward charge of their own.

Keryk had the final kick of the game, booting the ball well clear of the Collingwood forward pack with just seconds to go and sealing the result.

“We affectionately call it Nina’s post down at that end, that she thumped the ball into. I think she’s almost wore out that nickname, but we bring it up every now and then,” she laughed.

“It was such a close game, and the pressure was really on at the end of the game. It was sweet relief and just pure excitement that we’d won.

“With all the build up, it was a huge relief of emotions. There was so much going into the performance on field, but also behind the scenes everyone who’d worked to get the team to that position was a huge celebration for all that work that went into getting us to that point.

“We were very excited to get the win and celebrate and sing the song afterwards. It was a great way to cap off your first game.

“I just feel like we had this belief we could do it, even though we’d never played together before, I don’t know why. I think there’d been that much build up that we were pumped up on adrenaline and confidence and found a way to win.”

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A short-lived finals berth

There were many memorable moments for Geelong as 2019 progressed after claiming its first victory.

While it couldn’t get keep the momentum going in the next two rounds, losing to the Western Bulldogs and Adelaide, the club would keep a perfect home record after defeating Carlton in another close affair.

Following up with a comprehensive win over Brisbane in its first win on the road, Geelong was charging towards a potential finals berth.

Due to the conference system in place at the time, the Cats would finish with a 3-4 win/loss record, but qualified for a preliminary final rematch with the Crows. Along with the Suns, they are the only expansion teams to make finals in their first season.

They were jumped by the eventual premiers however, going down by a record 66 points.

“The score of that final against Adelaide wasn’t ideal, and we were pretty disappointed,” Darby said.

“We knew that they were a really strong team, and our chances of winning were likely to go in their direction, but we were a bit disappointed with the fight we put up.

“We feel like we could have done a lot better on the day, but it was a huge learning experience for all of us.

“Once we got over the sting of the loss, it’s helped the group form and bond from there. In footy, it’s all about who you’re playing with and your teammates.

“You’ve go through the highs together, but it’s so important that you go through the lows together. As hard as it was on the day, it’s ended up being good for the core group of us that are still there that have been through a lot together.

“It was a little bit funny with the conference system, but it gave us that belief that if we were playing our best footy, we can take it up to other teams, and to stronger teams in the competition.”

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The Cats are yet to return to the finals after their inaugural season, missing by half a game in 2020 before slumping to the bottom reaches of the ladder in 2021.

While they kept a core of their group together in 2020, a huge list turnover saw players retire or leave for elsewhere, leaving the Cats to snap a nine game losing streak to finish off 2021.

With a vast array of young talent from the draft and other clubs coming the other way in the past two seasons however, the club looks primed to take the next step forward in season seven.

Geelong played a clear, contested game style in season six. While it didn’t amount to many wins, the side was at no point blown out, and looked competitive every week.

“We all just know that’s [list turnover] a part of it,” Darby said.

“As a league that’s still developing, we knew that there was going to be a lot of changeover and lots of numbers in and out.

“There’s a few of us that have stuck together from the beginning, and you’re making sure you’re driving those standards and those positive cultures.”

“The more time we spend together, train together, playing together, that just keeps building and building,” Keryk added.

“It’s a credit to the girls that have come in. Not only the way they’ve adapted, but they’ve contributed to our group and help build that further, and really build on what it means to play for Geelong.

“I’m really looking forward to this season, to see how we go. I feel like we took some good steps forward last season, and we get a good chance to build on that and not have to wait a whole year for the next season to roll around.”

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