The Year of Exploration: 2023 Season Review
On a wet and blustery Saturday afternoon at the MCG, the conclusion to the sesquicentennial season of the St Kilda Football Club was played out.
Our ‘Year of Exploration,’ a six month journey of highs and lows, and twists and turns, ended where few predicted. Written off by most as a bottom four team with scant talent, Ross Lyon and his team of assistants have instead instilled a level of respectability and trust in their team, and our club. For the first time in a long time, Saints fans are no longer anticipating the trade season, instead, March 2024 cannot come quick enough.
So, what have we discovered in 2023?
Youth Gone Wild
The most exciting discovery in 2023 was the unearthing of young talent. As the season approached, all eyes were on Marcus Windhager, after his strong finish to 2022. Instead, it was Mitchito Owens who burst onto the scene, shattering any consideration of second year blues. Owens finished the year with an average of 15 disposals, kicked 28 goals, while his 49 hit outs unveiled a surprise ability to pinch hit in the ruck. He capped off a fantastic year by finishing third in the Rising Star and was named in the All Australian under 22 team. Joining Owens in that team was Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera. The young South Australian cemented a role at half back in 2023 and his sublime skills have Saints fans salivating. Meanwhile, Windhager returned from some time at Sandringham to also lock in a position in the team.
The investment in youth was evident with new draftee Mateus Philippou playing every game, despite some quiet patches. Clearly, an early favourite of Ross Lyon, Philippou showed glimpses of his star power, with 60m goals and agility in traffic. The investment of a full AFL season plus a final will reap surely dividends in 2023. Additionally, pre-season recruit Anthony Caminiti benefitted from an injury hit forward line, earning himself 18 games and multi-year contract. His raw ability will need some polish in the off season, but early indications are that we have found a handy sidekick for Max King.
Elsewhere, Ryan Byrnes and Cooper Sharman had career best years. Byrnes stepped up in the absence of Jones and Billings, while the high flying Sharman was one of the best in the Elimination Final.
Get Born Again
Mason Wood the All-Australian. Remember that discussion? After a decade in the AFL system, the tantalising talent of Mason Wood finally clicked in 2023. In the early rounds, Wood was firmly in the AA team and was a pacesetter for the re-emergence of wingmen across the AFL. While his season plateaued after a brilliant start, Wood was consistent throughout the year and a valuable contributor, playing every game and finishing with 15 goals.
Like Caminiti, the Saints pinched another Carlton player for nothing, with the off season signing of Liam Stocker. Unable to break into the Blues team, Stocker missed only one game for the year, and was an important cog in the AFL’s no.1 ranked defence.
Finally, Zaine Cordy. When the unrestricted free agent joined St Kilda in October, it left many fans puzzled. What do we need him for? Come round one, Cordy was propping up a makeshift forward line, and provided an excellent tall target, while later in the season he stepped in to fill the void left by an injured Dougal Howard. Cordy’s energy and ungainly kicking style, reminiscent of Jayson Daniels and James Manson, has seen a new cult hero emerge at St Kilda.
For the first time in more than a decade St Kilda had two players selected in the All-Australian team. Jack Sinclair backed up a break out year in 2022 with another selection on the half back line, while Callum Wilkie was named at Full Back. Ruckman Rowan Marshall was named in the 40 man squad, and gave selectors something to think about, with a dominant display in the Elimination Final. The trio’s recognition finally shatters the nonsense of St Kilda not having any A-graders.
With Mitch Owens and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera named in the under 22 AA team, and former All-Australian finishing Jack Steele finishing the year strongly, the future is bright.
Say Your Last Goodbye
The list turnover began in earnest following the season’s end, with Jack Bytel, Oscar Adams, Leo Connolly, and Jack Peris the first to be delisted. The only surprise amongst the group is Peris, who impressed in his debut game against the Gold Coast. Bytel and Connolly have been unable to make the step up from VFL level, while Adams was a speculative pick in the 2021 draft.
Ross Lyon has on many occasions declared the draft a priority. Our current hand of 12, 31 and 50 is ok, but Lyon’s enthusiasm for youth indicates that trades, potentially painful for trades some supporters, could be coming. Question marks remain over names such as Gresham, Highmore, Clark, Jones, and Coffield. Meanwhile, Jack Billings and Ben Paton are both contracted, however seemed to fall out of favour in 2023 and could spark interest from rival clubs. Sadly, Dan McKenzie was unable to return this year, and his wing position was filled comfortably by Mason Wood and Bradley Hill. Maybe one more chance.
Fremantle’s Liam Henry became the first player to declare his interest in joining St Kilda and would be another handy player in Ross Lyon’s pursuit of speed.
Suture Up Your Future
In Ross Lyon’s final game as coach in 2011, a tired and emotionally drained St Kilda lost an Elimination Final, by four goals, to a team from NSW. In a strange twist of fate, his return season has also produced an Elimination Final loss, also by 4 goals, against a team from NSW. However, instead of trying to arouse one last flag tilt for an exhausted team of experienced campaigners, Lyon’s 2023 Saints are awash with young raw talent, unscarred from multiple near misses, and free from the burden of expectation. Jack Sinclair has declared that finals are the new minimum standard at St Kilda. No longer should we fear the F-word. We should expect it, embrace it, and strive for it. The future is bright at St Kilda, for the first time in a long time.