THE Kiama Knights, over the past decade, have reestablished themselves as one of the powerhouse rugby league clubs on the South Coast.
From ending their first grade premiership drought last season, to being senior club champions in 2017, 2018 and 2019 - as well as reaching four junior grand finals last year (including winning two), the Kiama Showground-based club is as strong as any in NSW.
A large part of the success is the junior club's Kristie Laird, who this week was named both the NSWRL "Gordon Lowrie" Volunteer of the Year and Volunteer of the Year Greater Southern Region.
"I first found out in early September that junior club president Carl Middleton had nominated me for the NSWRL community rugby league awards but, to be honest, I hadn't given it much thought since then," Laird, who's sister-in-law also nominated her, said.
"I obviously don't do it for the recognition or the accolades, so to even be nominated was a huge honour in itself.
"Then on Monday, I received an email from NSWRL and it came as a complete surprise that I'd won. I had to re-read it a couple of times before it actually sunk in and then I cried.
"I am just so grateful and overwhelmed to have been selected as the winner of these two prestigious awards - what an honour.
"For me though, it's all about the kids and our committee has been working hard to build our club and create a strong, positive culture that people want to be part of.
"We've almost doubled our registrations in the last three years, so I think we're definitely heading in the right direction."
During her seven years with the club, numbers dipped in 2017 before again sky-rocketing in recent seasons - highlighted by the red and blacks having the second largest number of kids take part in the LeagueStars program, which was organised in conjunction with the NRL development team.
Her first involvement with the junior club came in 2014 when she became the manager for her son Max's under 6s team but she has supported the club for close to 20 years due to her husband Marc's involvement, with him now being Kiama's first grade assistant coach.
"Soon after starting, I completed my LeagueSafe and coaching certificates so I could help out more on game day," Laird, who played women's league tag for the Knights in 2016 and 2017, said.
"With registration numbers on the decline, I joined the committee in 2018 as I wanted to help make a difference and I wanted a strong club for our kids to play for in years to come.
"I initially took on the role of publicity officer, given my background in communications - as well as managing both Max and Eddie's sides.
"I set up their new Facebook page, developed a new website and took photos on game day.
"I also helped to organise our major fundraising event and coordinate our 'team of the week' which provides our junior players with the opportunity to present the first grade team with their jerseys on game day.
"Then for the last two years, I have been the secretary of the junior club, working closely with our hard-working committee to oversee the operations of the club.
"This year has been particularly busy with the increased requirements due to COVID-19."
Due to her tireless work, Kiama's junior registrations are up 172 per cent since 2017, which Middleton says is "largely because of Kristie's involvement and the massive amount of work that she completes day in and day out".
She also helped set up a session with the Mental Health Movement's Ashton Sims, a Group Seven product, following multiple suicides in the community, which positively affected the welfare of the club's players.
"It starts a conversation, where previously suicides were taboo and hardly talked about," Middleton, who's junior club play at Chittick Oval, said.
"Our kids are being encouraged to talk to parents and are being provided with resources that can assist."
While Laird has put plenty of time in the sport, she also appreciates how much she has taken from rugby league and the Kiama Knights over the years.
"For me, the Knights is such a family-friendly club that provides so many great opportunities for boys and girls to not only play rugby league and league tag, as well as building so many great friendships on and off the field," Laird, who fell in love with the sport in the 1990s because of Brad Fittler, said.
"In fact, many of our closest friends we have met through rugby league.
"It's basically where we spend our entire weekends in winter, helping out with junior and senior games.
"While I love watching my boys play each week alongside their mates, I get great satisfaction in seeing every player wearing the Knights colours and enjoying their footy.
"This year has also been particularly challenging given the pandemic, so it was awesome to see our players finally take to the field in July after it looked like the season may not go ahead."
As stoked as Laird is with the awards and progress of the club, she acknowledges this is only the start.
"We have big plans for the junior club," she said.
"This year we had 26 teams and more than 310 players registered including 190 boys and 120 girls and we're looking to build on that next season.
"Our main priority is to maintain our international teams (aged 13+) as they are the future of our senior club for years to come.
"We want to continue to promote the pathway from junior to senior league by encouraging players of all abilities to be involved in the game.
"We are also wanting to provide more opportunities for our female players and will be pushing for the girl's rugby league to continue as a season-long competition in 2021.
"It was trialled this year with huge success and our girls had a really strong season.
"We're also looking to increase the number of fields we have available on game day so we can continue to grow.
"However, to do this we need to get more people involved with the club to help out with teams and/or be part of our committee.
"It's a great chance to give back to the community, so I'd like to encourage others to get involved."