In the aftermath of David Carney's first season as Wollongong Wolves head coach, where does the efforts of 2023 set them up for next year?
The side came home with a wet sail, finishing in the top half of the table in seventh in an extended 30 game season with 11 wins. The Wolves went unbeaten in their last four and only dropped the one game in their final eight fixtures.
Goals were flowing right at the end too. They finished their campaign with a 5-0 win against Mt Druitt and near the end they smashed Sydney FC 6-2 in Wollongong. Perhaps the most impressive of wins however was their 4-0 drubbing of title contenders Rockdale away from home.
There were plenty of highs and lows and a roller coaster of emotions for Carney in his first season as a head coach since retirement from the professional game.
The great unknown is whether or not the Wolves will be in the 'National Second Tier' competition next season with Football Australia yet to announce the successful candidates for the proposed new league, but here's what the Wolves can take into next season irrespective of what league they are in.
Being a young squad, the Wolves were prone to a fair share of defensive mishaps on occasion. Most notably at the beginning of the season.
Even as far back as round one, the Wolves were all over eventual champions APIA, leading 2-0 at one point, before lapses in concentration saw them settle for a point on opening night.
The Wolves walked away with nothing in enthralling clashes for the neutrals when they lost 5-3 to St George and 5-4 to NWS Spirit respectively.
After humbling experiences, the Wolves grew stronger the more they played and in the end cut out the mistakes to see them beat a number of different opposition as the season came to a close.
It's hard to single out one player but it must be said that the former Illawarra Premier League product came into his own in the back end of the campaign.
Ofuka starred in the 4-0 Rockdale win and even prompted the highest of praise from his A-League winning coach with Carney saying he could make it in the professional game.
"I honestly think he can go to the next level," Carney said after a 2-1 win against NWS Spirit at Albert Butler Park.
It must be said that Ofuka was not the only one, there were many others who showed plenty of class, however Ofuka was simply electric in those matches at the back end of the year.
Ofuka finished with 10 goals which was equal second with Jake Trew in the Wolves goal scoring charts.
Perhaps the best is yet to come from the Wolves with at least 10 of their players committed to the club for 2024.
The players seem committed to the cause. Former Wanderers striker and now Wolves captain Lachlan Scott continues to thrive, as does the likes of Walter Scott, Ethan Beaven, Tomas Butkovic and Chris McStay. The latter etched his name into the NPL NSW team of the season which was a huge achievement.
All of the above players have re-signed, as has Banri Kanaizumi, Marcus Beattie, Harrison Buesnel, Samuel Riak and Jake Trew.
With the proposed 'National Second Tier' on the horizon, it will be different contracts that players will have to sign should they be accepted into the competition. But Carney said that whilst this was the case, the club wanted the playing group to stick together - as did he and the squad - irrespective of the competition.
"Basically the whole squad wants to go again and from my point of view I want to keep the squad I've got," he said in August.
"They've been excellent. They're a young team and they've been really starting to gel together. With the boys re-signing it allows me to focus on bringing a few more players in for what we need to really take the team to another level.
If you needed any proof that the Wolves can match it with anyone, look no further than the 2-2 draw with APIA in round one as well as the 4-0 Rockdale victory.
On their day, the Wolves can beat anyone. And with the squad sticking together, they will only improve and become more consistent, paving the way for more massive results against the 'big guns'.
The Wolves' slow start to the season was what cost them in the end in terms of the table, but Carney and the team can take great delight in the fact that they finished so strongly.
No matter what competition they are involved in for 2024, they will want to keep that momentum going.
The Wolves have a young squad as it is, but that didn't stop some of the next generation getting their debuts in the first team.
The most notable was under 18s player Damon Gray, who came off the bench in a 2-2 draw with Western Sydney.
A number of other youngsters played their part for first grade, whether that being on the field or on the bench. The likes of Ben Giason, Dax Kelly and Thomas Dunn were frequently selected by Carney.
Carney is not afraid of blooding the youngsters.
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