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Embracing a fresh start

THE Portland Panthers Soccer Club will take a daring first step into the wilds of Victorian soccer this weekend, when they host Hamilton Raiders and Corangamite Lions in their first game in the South West Victoria Football Association.

While the junior grades played games last season in the competition, the seniors did not, and the juniors played there because they could not cross the border to play in the Mount Gambier competition, where Portland has played in the past.

Joining the Victorian league has many advantages for Portland, not least some shorter travel times for away matches at Port Fairy (75km) and Hamilton (85km), although there will still be the long hauls to Stawell (213km, similar to the old 219km trip to Naracoorte) and Timboon (Corangamite’s home venue, 155km compared to the previous 157km to Millicent). Other away matches will be in Warrnambool against Warrnambool Wolves, Warrnambool Rangers and Deakin Dragons.

This weekend, the under-12s, 14s and the senior side will take on Hamilton, while the under-16s will play the Corangamite Lions as Hamilton do not have an under-16 team.

“All our squads are looking relatively healthy… Hamilton will be a good test in the juniors, in the few games we played last year, Hamilton were quite strong,” Portland Panthers president David Stafford said.

Stafford said the move also gives junior players a better pathway, with league representative sides associated with A-League team Western United.

Just where Portland will stand in the competition is an unknown. Not only are they joining a new league, the move comes with the 2020 season wiped out by COVID-19.

Hamilton this weekend will serve as a sort of marker for Portland to measure themselves against, but while Stafford has said that they are aiming for a top four (finals) place, there are too many unknowns surrounding the league to get a true understanding of where they will place.

“It’s a bit hard (to predict) because I don’t know much about any of the clubs, traditionally Corangamite’s the strongest, but it’s difficult to say (how the team will go).”

The return of star players also bodes well for Portland, with Dylan Murray, the club’s highest-achieving player, returning from America last year, and Beau Stafford returning from a stint with Ballarat FC in the National Premier League, the second tier of soccer in Australia.

There are also minor rule changes in the SWVFA, with all grades playing with an AFL-style interchange system rather than the traditional soccer-style substitution system.

The senior competition will run over 17 rounds, while the juniors will have a three-week break during school holidays, and finals will be played in September.

The under-12s will play nine-a-side, across the pitch, starting at 10.30am, while the under-14s play at 11.45am, under-16s at 1pm and seniors at 2.30pm.

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