'One hell of a ride': Cats boss reflects on first AFLW season

GEELONG'S first season in the NAB AFL Women's competition was "one hell of a ride".

This year saw the Cats' inaugural AFLW side take to the field, qualifying for finals but crashing out to a rampant Adelaide in a preliminary final at Adelaide Oval.

The club's head of women's football Simone Bellears told womens.afl despite the best of preparations, there were still things that caught the club slightly off-guard.

"The existing clubs were all really generous in sharing their experiences and providing insight before we came into the competition," she said.

"But to be completely honest, I don't think anything could have prepared us for the intensity around a seven-week season.

"It takes a massive toll on the resources, players and staff."

Geelong won three out of seven games in the home and away season, but qualified for finals after finishing in the top two of the weaker Conference B.

"Premierships were definitely second on our list of what [initial] success looks like, and it was a bonus and it was embraced to have the opportunity to play finals," Bellears said.

"It created a lot of excitement down here and was a lovely story, but we're as aware as anyone that it was something that came out of the conference system we were in.

"We were very happy to be in that position and we embraced it, but it definitely did add to the intensity of the program. Just one extra week added to what felt like a very long season."

A dejected Richelle Cranston after the Cats lost to the Crows in the preliminary final

Eventual premier Adelaide demolished the undermanned and inexperienced Cats – missing full-forward Phoebe McWilliams (broken hand) and full-back Maddy McMahon (concussion) - in the preliminary final by 66 points.

Bellears said despite the result, it wasn't too early for Geelong to be playing finals up against clubs (Carlton, Fremantle and Adelaide) who had three years under their belt.

"There's always learning opportunities in those big games, especially one on the road," she said.

"I'd never say it was too soon, obviously our fans loved it and the opportunity to play against a side like Adelaide for a second time too meant there were just so many good learnings for our young players."

The Cats will take nearly the same squad into the 2020 season, retaining its maximum of 22 players and two rookies.

The only first-21 players who weren't retained were Erin Hoare (study commitments) and Mia-Rae Clifford, who will be 32 next season.

Cats fans turned out in force for the club's first AFLW match

All have found homes elsewhere. Clifford (Fremantle) and Hannah Burchell (Richmond) were picked up by other AFLW clubs, while Maighan Fogas and Hayley Trevean are playing with Essendon's VFLW team. Elise Coventry, 35 next year, is recovering from a knee reconstruction.

"It's such a crucial part of our list management plan, to retain the maximum that we could. It is part of our strategy in continuing to build locally, and to have a connection to the region," Bellears said.

"We certainly had players that we knew would be attractive to other clubs, but we were thrilled we were able to retain the number we did.

"I think it's because they're in for the build. It's hard to create a united team in a short season, and I think they felt like they'd only just been getting started, and now what they can do in season two for us."

She said the club's biggest challenge was supporting the players the best they could through a tiring, stressful season in the small amount of time available to them, given the players were on part-time contracts.

"We were very prepared, but I think the emotional needs of the players probably required more support than what we had initially thought.

"Having their opportunity on the big stage for the first time had a big impact on them emotionally, and it then carried into every round.

"We didn't underestimate the level of player welfare, we always knew we would need good support there. But the capacity to influence in that space, under the restricted number of hours you have with players, and how you can address their wellbeing in a short amount of time was a challenge."

Nina Morrison was brilliant for Geelong in her AFLW debut against Collingwood

Midfielder Nina Morrison, the No.1 pick in the 2018 NAB AFLW Draft, was the talk of the town after her best-on-ground performance in round one against Collingwood, where she kicked a behind to win the match.

Just a few days later, she ruptured the ACL in her right knee at training. It was a devastating blow to the club and the competition in general.

"Nina's great, she's going really well. She's started her first year at Deakin University on the back of being dux for her school, and it's just perspective on what else these female athletes are up to on the back of also playing elite level football," Bellears said.

"Nina's doing a great job of balancing rehab and university and she's back at her old school (Geelong Grammar) coaching their women's team. This is their first women's team and it's come on the back of AFLW.

"It's a great use of her time, passion and energy for football, which she's loving. She is a superstar, we love her and having her around."