DEEP into pre-season, the feeling is good at Whitten Oval.
Western Bulldogs are about to launch their own team back into the Victorian Football League under the club’s traditional Footscray branding.
One man at the centre of it all is Ballarat’s Chris Maple, who will coach the Bulldogs’ VFL charge this season.
Maple started with a near-blank canvas to build his team, 21 players to complement AFL-listed players sent into VFL ranks, and his staff.
It has been a demanding process, but one month out from the Bulldogs’ season opener, the club’s new arm is coming together well.
“The hardest part has been all the recruiting and putting together all the new staff, new statisticians and new coaches into how we want to do things,” Maple said.
“But it absolutely is the exciting part starting from scratch, too.
“We’re really looking forward to the season.”
The Bulldogs and Richmond each make the split from their VFL affiliates this season, joining Geelong, Essendon and Collingwood as independent AFL clubs in the state league.
Maple said the move allows the Bulldogs more control and consistency on their AFL listed players and would benefit former partner Williamstown, now a standalone VFL club, in following its own direction.
Club processes on and off the field mirror those of the Bulldogs’ AFL methods to maintain smoother transition.
Maple’s new role as head VFL coach is an extension of the work he has been doing with the club as a development coach, a role he still holds, since leaving North Ballarat Rebels after the 2008 season.
He still travels daily from Ballarat to Whitten Oval but three times a week this summer, he switches into “VFL mode” at 4pm and takes training.
“Our philosophy, through the whole club, is about developing AFL players first, then VFL players and developing staff,” Maple said.
To help carry the Bulldogs culture into its new tier, the club has installed respected, delisted Bulldogs Nick Lower and Lukas Markovic as co-captains.
Signings Jordan Russell (Carlton/Collingwood) and Brent Prismall (Geelong/Essendon) will help bolster experience on and off the field in playing development coaching roles.
Maple and his team continued to construct a list primarily on emerging talent in the western suburbs.
David Iaccarino (Western Jets) and Mitch Jensen (Calder Cannons) are among the promising TAC Cup graduates, as is Will Hayes (Sandringham Dragons), who arrives at Whitten Oval with his identical twin brother JD, a decorated football captain with Melbourne Grammar School.
A couple of former Werribee VFL players made the move in a bid to play more senior football.
The Bulldogs also recruited from A-grade amateurs and the Western Region Football League.
Then there were players like East Point’s Hayden Walters that wanted to test their game at the next level and chose to trial for the Bulldogs on the feeling about the club.
“We were pretty specific in what we wanted,” Maple said.
“In a list of 21 players, we wanted a little bit of experience around and we’ve got that in Nick Lower, Lukas Markovic, Jordan Russell and Brent Prismall, who all have AFL experience and are all good leaders.
“...We recruited from our region, (hoping to build on community support) is one of the reasons we did it,” Maple said.
“There’s a lot of young talent about that hasn’t necessarily had state league experience.”
Maple is well-versed in head coaching duties.
He started his coaching career as a playing coach with Mininera club Tatyoon before leading Buninyong for three years and netting the 2002 Central Highlands’ senior premiership.
His passion for player development stems from working with Ballarat’s talented juniors.
Maple stepped up from assistant to the Rebels’ head coaching job in 2007 and was named TAC Cup coach of the year.
It is experience that set him in good stead as head of development with the Bulldogs and fostering well-rounded athletes like former Rebel Jordan Roughead, Liam Jones, Ayce Cordy, Luke Dalhaus, Tom Liberatore or Mitch Wallis that are firming their spots as solid senior players.
A rare and coveted Ballarat Associated Schools’ first XVIII football premiership with Ballarat High School in 2001 remains one of Maple’s favourite highlights in his development work in Ballarat.
Maple has spent a lot of time in the coaches’ box in varying roles at AFL and VFL level since joining the Bulldogs in 2009.
Round one will be mark his return to the “main chair” as head coach for the first time since his two years at the helm of the Rebels in TAC Cup under-18 competition.
His first assignment is at home against Richmond, but a round five clash is one he looks forward to most.
Back at Eureka Stadium, this time facing up against North Ballarat.