As women's cricket enjoys a rapid rise in the south-west, it's inevitable further opportunities to advance to higher levels will come to fruition.
After The Standard revealed female cricket teams had grown 31 per cent in the Warrnambool district, which Cricket Victoria estimated to be among the largest increases in the state and nation-wide, record growth will provide developmental programs and opportunities to expand.
One club beginning its journey in the Victorian Premier Cricket women's competition this season is Geelong, which has a vision to be the home of female cricket in the south-west and attract talented players to the club who perhaps wouldn't have had the opportunity in the past.
The Cats currently have 30 players in their Premier Cricket squad - which sits fifth in the seconds competition and first in the thirds competition at present - with more than half of those players residing in the south-west.
The Cats' under 15 development Puma squad - which comprised 24 players - had a large contingent of Warrnambool-based and south-west youngsters this season and is looking to boom in the future.
But as the club seeks to climb up into the Premier top grade next season, expect more talented female cricketers from the south-west to be given opportunities, according to Geelong director of women's cricket Sarah Pike.
"It's really important and it's vital to be that club that represents them and a pathway for those girls that never saw Premier Cricket as an option for them," she told The Standard.
"It's incredibly exciting and we're stoked."
Pike said the south-west region was stacked with talent and players were incredibly passionate about the game and its growth and understood the opportunities it could present them at an elite level.
"We thought really hard about going into Premier Cricket sooner rather than later because we had knowledge of all these girls, all capable cricketers and distance was that issue and accessibility was physically stopping these girls from making that next step," she said.
"All of those girls from the south-west were not playing Premier Cricket at all, they were all new to the competition and all over the age of 15 except for one. We now have a couple of 18 and 19 year olds who are new to Premier Cricket as well.
"What it shows is there are girls out there wanting to play, so we needed to make a Premier club on the other side of Melbourne that represented the western region of Victoria.
"It's incredibly contagious - I think the Warrnambool women's competition started with four sides and look at it now, so it's going to continue to grow in the future.
"We're excited about it and obviously want to see more females playing cricket."
Port Fairy's Maddie Green is one of many talented players on the Geelong list, with the rising star currently leading the run tally for the Cats in their first XI.
The batter has 250 runs at an average of 50 in the team, including 129 against Prahran, and 146 runs at 36.5 in the under 18s. She has also played cricket with Port Fairy this season on Saturdays, such is her commitment to the game.
The youngster played a few games in the Essendon-Maribyrnong Park under 18 side last season too but has found a home at the Cattery.
She said club culture was one of encouragement and support and the vision sold by the club was generating excitement.
"They're setting goals, not just for this season, but they're looking five, 10 years from now as well," she said.
"The culture around the club is amazing and being part of that vision is wonderful. Everyone's got your back, it's one big family."
Green said for females from the region, opportunities would continue to grow as the Cats further expanded into the south-west.
"It's that stepping stone to play high levels of cricket and it's just one more step up into the Victorian squads and the Australian teams, so it's a good tryout," she said.
"Over the past few years it's gone above expectations here (in the Warrnambool district and the south-west), and the participation of girls in the region has excelled.
"I think it was just a matter of time to be honest - there's an insane amount of talent. I went away with the under 15 Western Waves girls with one of my teammates at Geelong, Chloe McKenzie, and we were coaching the squad and the talent was incredible when you compare it to five years ago, even just two years ago.
"There's many girls that have the potential to play at the higher level, there's plenty of them out there."
Green said accessibility was a crucial factor in driving up participation in the region, with the club holding training sessions in Dunkeld, Warrnambool or Hamilton every Thursday night for girls who are from that far Western region and can't travel to Geelong more than once or twice a week.
"They really take that into consideration, it's so important for girls out this way to have that accessibility," she said.
"Some girls are travelling so far just to train and for us it allows us to have the same opportunities that others have."
Dunkeld's Stephen Field, who has a long association with cricket in the south-west and is now director of coaching for Geelong's women's section, said the program had ticked all the boxes so far.
Field - who ended his over two-decade tenure with Western Waves and Cricket Victoria in 2020 - has intimate knowledge of just how much the game means to so many.
"It's probably exceeded most expectations, there's definitely no secret we set a pretty aspirational task for the first year," he said.
"It's provided us with a lot of learning opportunities going forward."
Field said to expand further into the south-west and witness the level of talent was exciting on many levels.
"In my previous roles in Cricket Victoria, I saw so many talented girls who may have even made the trek down to Melbourne, have to drop out because of the excessive travel, the cost, the time and the energy required," he said.
"The odd one makes it, you look at someone like Georgia Wareham (Mortlake), but most of our girls from this area, we probably identified 25 out of the 30 that hadn't played any Premier Cricket before and may not have.
"When we put this program together, I said to Sarah (Pike) that if we want to do this properly, we have to service the players coming from our area but we have to service the other associations too and drive their coaching and standards as well.
"We want to grow the game for girls and women, that's our ambition, but in terms of the south-west, it's participation is massive and it'll only grow further."
Field said to provide accessibility for players to access Premier coaches - such as the Thursday night training sessions for girls who can't travel to Geelong - was vital to the sustainability of the program and to ensure talented females weren't lost to the game.
"Having access to the girls from a coaching perspective is so important because some just simply couldn't get there because of travel previously," he said.
"The fact they can do it in their own backyard is great for them."
Field said the club was working hard to support the players and get them up to speed at Premier level.
"We want to develop girls to get to a Premier ones standard, and we need to provide them with those tools," he said.
"Things like game sense, and so forth, just having groups together training means we can work on those things together.
"It means when they arrive on Sunday for their game, they know what they need to do and hopefully it improves their standard but their knowledge of the game too."
While unearthing cricketers is key, Field also added providing opportunities for coaches to develop their craft was integral to the long-term vision of the club. He wants many future elite coaches to emerge from the program.
With the Cats hopeful they can entice more talented south-west cricketers into Premier Cricket in the future, Pike said the focus was now on finishing their first season strongly and building on the foundations.
"The girls are chuffed that they're getting this opportunity but that they are getting some success on the field," she said.
"We want the girls to enjoy their cricket first and foremost and the friendships that they're making because that's what builds a great club.
"We want girls to want to turn up and play with their best mates - wins are the bonus, and we want to go onto Premier firsts, but it certainly isn't the be-all and end-all this year, it's about ingraining those skills to get them to the next level.
"We're stoked to be on top of the ladder in the Premier threes, it just shows the level of development and in the twos we're fifth on the ladder but only by two points, so it's probably shocked quite a few people."
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