The 2023 Premier League is finally upon, with the season launching on Friday night with Cringila meeting rivals Coniston at Crehan Park.
But before that first whistle blows, Mercury football writers Josh Bartlett and Jordan Warren get out their crystal ball to make some bold predictions about this year's campaign.
BARTLETT: Well, a lot of Premier League fans won't want to hear this, but I believe Wollongong Olympic are the team to beat in 2023. Coach Matt Bailey led his team to grand final glory in his first year at the helm, and that squad looks even more stacked heading into this season.
Experienced goalkeeper Justin Pasfield and exciting talent Jake Trew have departed, however, Olympic will be able to compensate for those losses, especially with the acquisition of former Wollongong Wolves captain Guy Knight.
Knight brings such a measured presence to any side, and he will also bring his former Wolves teammate Nick Littler with him. The pair appear to be a bundle deal, after also playing alongside each other at Bulli.
And with the likes of reigning George Naylor Medallist Chris Price, James O'Rourke and Harry Callahan returning, I think Olympic are set to just get even stronger in 2023. Rivals United will be hot on their heels, as well as the likes of Coniston, Albion Park and Bulli. What do you reckon, Jordan?
WARREN: You're right on the money early Josh. But United will be ever stronger this year I predict.
The biggest question for coach Billy Tsovolos is can he deal with the loss of both Mason Versi and Klime Sekutkoski? But based on how the coach runs things, my prediction is yes he can.
Tsovolos has no problems backing his youngsters, with the current United first grade squad filled with players that have come through their U-20's and reserve grade system. The likes of Bailey Barbarovski and Josh Correia had their breakout season last year and they should kick-on even further in 2023.
With core members Danny Lazarevski, Ben Brooks, Jeremy Flanagan, Rene Vescio all sticking around, Tsovolos' men will look to go one better in 2023.
But the good news is it should make the Olympic v United rivalry even more exciting this season.
I predict Coniston to go well this campaign and I'm sure coach Rob Jonovski will have incredibly high standards set for his side.
Bulli, Albion Park, Tarrawanna, Cringila will all be in the finals hunt, you would imagine.
OUT OF THE BLUE:
BARTLETT: Every IPL season seems to throw up a bolter on the ladder, and I can't see that trend changing in 2023.
Cringila undoubtedly held that mantle last season, jumping all the way up to book a finals spot for the first time in over a decade, after a couple of seasons planted near the foot of the ladder. The Lions followed in the footsteps of previous bolters Coniston in 2021 (from 10th to third) and Woonona in 2020 (sixth to premiership winners).
So who is ready to shock this year? It might seem a bit left-field, but I'm going for our IPL newcomers Helensburgh. The Thistles have flexed their muscles in District League in recent years, and finally earned a promotion after claiming the title last season.
Coach Andy Paine has retained the bulk of his squad, which includes the likes of captain Vaughan Patterson and Brad Watts, while bringing in an A-League experienced player in midfielder Dylan Caton, and some other promising guys like ex-South Coast Flame talent Luke Morgan and Jayden Calber (from Bulli).
With such a stacked line-up, I don't think the Burgh will just make up numbers - I can see them seriously pushing for that top five. How about you?
WARREN: The Burgh have a quality squad on paper and I can see them making a jump for finals this year.
My bolter at present is Corrimal. After a dismal 2022, Manny Mavridis and Phil Matias have completely refurbished the old timber and this year they have an even more youthful feel about them - with the oldest player in their squad in his early 20s.
Corrimal haven't targeted any high-name recruits, but have brought in the likes of former Port Kembla trio Luca Papalia and brothers Harrison and James Anagnostopoulos, and ex-Cringila midfielder Keegan Matias (Phil's son) and Aleksandar Duckinoski from Coniston, with Matias in particular one that has played at a really high level with both the Wolves and Olympic in the IPL.
Matias and fellow youngster Cody Wehmeyer will also lead the side as co-captains this season.
Expect them to climb the ladder in 2023.
READY TO SHINE
BARTLETT: I think there's plenty of young players set to impress this year, but my focus is going to be on Albion Park recruit Tory Musumeci.
A proven goal-scorer, Musumeci has bounced around a few Premier League clubs in the past few years - including Olympic and Port Kembla - but should be primed to shine at the White Eagles.
The former Wolves first grader was in particular restricted to limited minutes at Olympic, due to their stacked front third. However, I can see him being given more responsibility under new Park coach George Antoniou.
Jordan, who else do you think is ready to take that next step?
WARREN: Looking at the young stars ready to line up in the Premier League, I can't go past Nic Tomasiello.
The youngster was exposed to first grade football very early on by former Tarrawanna coach Peter Willis and over the next six seasons has been a shining light in the Blueys' attack.
But in 2023, Tomasiello has made the move to Jonovski's 'Cono' in order to win silverware. It is a move that would have been tough for the youngster, but one he felt necessary in order to progress his career.
This season I predict big things for Tomasiello. I believe he will act as a key cog and make up that final piece of the puzzle for Coniston to push for silverware.
Other than Tomasiello, look out for Tarrawanna's Ben Learmonth and Kyle Kirkland in midfield as well as Nick High up front.
Lucas Loncar from South Coast United is also in for a big year I predict, with the centre-half set to be a long-term option at Ian McLennan Park for some time.
UNDER THE PUMP
BARTLETT: Speaking of SCU, I unfortunately see them as one of the two sides most under pressure heading into this season.
Greg Valic's men have fought bravely in recent years, but have been unlucky to avoid relegation in the past few campaigns. The ongoing impact of COVID and rain saved them from falling to District League in 2020 and 2021, and arguably again last year, as wet weather forced a reshuffle of the competition to see the bottom face each other every round late in the season.
Valic himself is optimistic that they can turn things around in 2023, with SCU bringing in some solid recruits. However, they have also lost key personnel, led by Jamie Wakeling (to Tarrawanna), and they could struggle to get off the foot of the table again.
The other team I'm concerned about is Bellambi, who collected last year's wooden spoon but avoided relegation due to Woonona dropping out. The Rosellas haven't been active in the player market, while coach Steven Dimitrievski has cleaned out more than 70 per cent of his 2022 squad.
While they do have some promising youth, I think it's going to take time for this squad to gel. How about you, Jordan, are there any other sides under the pump heading into 2023?
WARREN: I certainly think SCU and the Rosellas are the obvious candidates to struggle early but if either side can get a couple of wins together early, who knows? United have plenty of experience in Valic, goalkeeper Jason Bleakley, striker Ricky Bertakis as well as some sensational players in their mid-twenties such as the Brodnik brothers - James and Kieren.
Port Kembla are a side that are a bit of an unknown going into the campaign, but have certainly got one eye on the future with Jordan Nikolovski named skipper for the campaign and they have the potential to take it to some of the big guns.
As always Josh our predictions at the beginning of the season will most likely look witless just a few rounds into proceedings, but we have done our best. Bring on the Illawarra Premier League - 2023 edition.