While careful to lump too much expectation on his group, Ballan coach Jason McNamara believes finals is a realistic aim for the senior side in what is his second campaign in charge.
The playing leader will look to lift a team that finished 11th last year to one that can pinch a place inside the top eight in 2018.
“In the backs of their minds, most of the playing group is probably thinking finals,” McNamara told The Courier.
“With a young group you sort of don’t want to put it out there otherwise the weight of expectation can worry them sometimes, but I imagine in the backs of their minds they are definitely thinking that.
“And I think you have to. I think it’s definitely fair. I’m sure there’s probably a couple of teams that are realistic and know that it’s not quite within their reach, but this time of year 95 per cent of clubs think they can play finals.
“And we are no different.”
McNamara said his squad was further advanced this pre-season compared to his first at the helm.
“We are definitely building something. We are building some good relationships and there is a bit better feel around the place, I suppose,” he said.
“There was a fair bit of unknown last year with so many players gone, so there’s a bit more stability...”
For finals to be a reality, everything would need to go right for a Blues side that won just five games last year.
Those victories came against Dunnstown, Rokewood-Corindhap, Skipton, Carngham-Linton and Newlyn – all teams that finished outside the top eight.
And given the Blues haven’t been overly successful with recruiting in the off-season, much of the improvement will have to come from within.
Among the new faces this season is ruckman Patrick Graham, who has arrived from SMW Rovers, while Tristan Batten is another of the exciting additions. Batten, from Melton, won the Ballarat league reserves best and fairest in 2016 and will be able to be used in a variety of roles at Ballan.
The loss of defender Jake Wilkinson (to Sebastopol) and midfielder Luke Souter (to Geelong Amateur) will hurt, but the Blues should still posses enough weapons to trouble a few sides in 2018.
Q: What do you see as your key on-field strength?
I see our midfield as a big strength. We played okay last year and with another pre-season together, I expect it to take a step forward.
Q: What is your key message as coach in 2018?
My main message for the year is: you only get out what you put in.
Q: How have the pre-season preparations gone?
Our pre-season has been ahead of last season. I'm reasonably happy. I would have liked our numbers to be a bit more consistent early.
Q: Which player are you most excited about?
I'm probably most excited about young guys that are just coming up and have played for a year or two. I thought they made good strides last year and now I'm hoping they keep learning and the improvements keep showing.
Q: Which is the team to beat this season?
Hepburn will be hard to beat and Beaufort looks like its list might have even improved.
The Blues’ Fact File
Jason McNamara (returning)
11th position, five wins, 10 losses, one draw
Top goal-kicker: Adam Kurzman, 20 goals
Best and fairest: Sam Sher
Geoff Taylor Medal top vote-getters: Jason McNamara 16, Darren Tanti 10, Sam Hitchings 6, Jarryd Graham 4, Sam Sher 3, Jake Wilkie 2, Michael Snaith 2
Pat Graham (SMW Rovers), Tristan Batten (Melton), Michael Donaldson (Merrigum), Trent Laurie (returning)
Luke Souter (Geelong Amateur), Jake Wilkinson (Sebastopol)
R1: Gordon (h)
R2: Buninyong (a)
R3: Springbank (a)
R4: Dunnstown (h)
R5: Beaufort (a)
R6: Hepburn (h)
R7: Waubra (a)
R8: Rokewood-Corindhap (h)
R9: Skipton (a)
R10: Creswick (h)
R11: Carngham-Linton (a)
R12: Clunes (h)
R13: Smythesdale (a)
R14: Learmonth (h)
R15: Newlyn (a)
R16: Daylesford (h)
R17: Bungaree (a)
The Blues were competitive and beat teams towards the bottom end of the ladder in 2017, but struggled to match it with the genuine finals contenders.
And it appears as though it will be much of the same for coach Jason McNamara and his men in season 2018.