JAKE Best wasn’t wrong when he said Traralgon were “young and exciting”.

That was how he described the Maroons’ list upon departing the coaching job last year.

While the young component was clearly evident as soon as Traralgon took to Bairnsdale City Oval for their own version of Opening Round in the Gippsland League last Saturday, the exciting part played out as the game wore on.

Having lost no shortage of experience with the departures of players such as Mark Collison, Brett Eddy, Tom Schneider and Best himself in the offseason, the now youthful Maroons provided an early glimpse into what they might be about in season 2024, defeating the Redlegs 16.11 (107) to 10.12 (72).

Both clubs agreed to play a standalone match on Easter Saturday, providing the East Gippsland region with an early footy fix.

Bairnsdale went into the clash carrying a degree of interest, as a heavy recruiting drive in the offseason saw them land a host of players from Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) club Old Scotch.

After the weekend’s performance, it is clear the team will need a few weeks to gel – and for the VAFA recruits accustomed to playing on sardine-sized grounds to adjudge playing on the huge paddocks of Gippsland.

As expected, first game rust was on display in the opening term. Cries of “sorry” followed by a quick hand raise from players missing targets were heard from the boundary, as the ball was constantly turned over between the arcs.

Traralgon however was able to find greater efficiency inside 50, and made the most of their opportunities, thanks mainly to Dylan Loprese.

The key forward kicked two set shots from acute angles in the opening term, setting up what turned out to be a big day for the ex-skipper turned assistant coach – and one of the select few Traralgon players over the age of 30.

The Maroons went into the first break 11 points up, and were able to further their ascendancy in the second, kicking four goals to two.

Traralgon had a dream start to the second half, when Liam Willaton (who had crossed to the club from neighbouring Traralgon Tyers United this season) goaled in the first 30 seconds to extend the lead.

Bairnsdale’s Lachlan Byrne-Jones (brother of Port Adelaide’s Darcy) responded with a much-needed goal at the five-minute mark, which set in motion a small momentum swing for the home side.

The Redlegs were granted another goal a short time later from a 50-metre penalty, before an extraordinary happening brought the game to life.

Goal of the Year might have been decided in Round 0, after Tyran Rees kicked an insane right foot dribble kick off the outside of his boot tucked up in the pocket in front of the changerooms.

That the ball went through was miraculous enough, let alone that it bounced past a handful of Traralgon defenders on the way.

With the margin suddenly just 11 points, the Maroons were able to find a steadier, again through Willaton. Yet the Redlegs refused to go away, and it was that man Rees again who cut the margin back. Rees’ second goal at the 17-minute mark wasn’t as freakish as his first, but it was no less classy, as he snapped the ball through off one step amid congestion from some distance.

Red time proved a critical juncture in more ways than one, and Traralgon had two telling moments as the game neared three quarter time.

The Maroons were able to goal through Loprese after two Bairnsdale players went for the same ball on centre wing, which was quickly sent forward. As much as that transition would have been pleasing for the Traralgon coaching staff, what happened at the other end of the ground a short time later personified the very meaning of a captain leading by example.

Byrne-Jones found himself with the ball and goal-side at the 27-minute mark. Looking all but certain to score, he ran to the goal-line, only to be denied by a desperate, lunging tackle from Traralgon captain Tye Hourigan. The tackle forced the kick to go straight up in the air toward the boundary, where it was met by Jesse Bills, who in turn was caught holding the ball by Joel Scholtes, giving the ball back to Traralgon.

Unfortunately, the very next play saw the ball returned to Bairnsdale after another holding the ball decision, which was goaled by Cooper Harvey to make it a 12-point ballgame. This however was considered beside the point, as the Traralgon defence had stopped a certain goal and made the next scoring opportunity far more difficult.

Things got slightly heated on the eve of three quarter time, with a small scrap unfolding after Traralgon’s Tom Hamilton was tackled by Matt Corbett. Hamilton ended up on top of Corbett, and was then dragged off by Rees, who in turn was dragged off by Scholtes. It was perhaps fitting Scholtes was wearing the Number 10 previously worn by Collison – two men who could always be relied upon to fly the flag.

Traralgon coach, Troy Hamilton cut a composed figure at the last change, telling his players to embrace the first challenge of the season.

Hamilton assured his troops they had the fitness to go the distance, and as it turned out, he was absolutely spot on.

The Maroons looked full of running in the final term, while conversely, their opponents appeared out on their feet.

Such a predicament was perhaps hard to comprehend for Bairnsdale, especially given it was the first game and players were fresh off preseason, although in fairness, the Redlegs were down to 19 fit men by that stage.

Bairnsdale was dealt a huge blow in the third term when playing-coach and best player Logan Austin did his hamstring, which was compounded further when Ricky Tatnell and Rees hobbled off as well.

The Austin absence at centre half forward freed up Hourigan, who took intercept marks for fun in the last quarter.

Harvey Neocleous extended the Traralgon lead to 20 points at the seven-minute mark, and then Loprese all but sealed the deal when he goaled three-and-a-half minutes later.

Bairnsdale had one final opportunity to make a late run at the 16-minute mark. With the margin back to 20 points, and with Austin calling to his players to “go quick”, they were able to take the ball from one end of the ground to the other, only for Rees to (ironically) miss his easiest shot of the game.

Another goal to Neocleous gave him his third, before a Jordan Cunico goal on the run from the very next centre clearance put the game beyond doubt.

Traralgon capped off the game in the best possible fashion, with Loprese slotting his seventh from a set shot in the pocket next to the entrance from 40 metres out.

A Maroons favourite, Loprese was named best-on-ground, followed by Tom Hamilton, Cunico, Hourigan, Willaton and Neocleous.

Hourigan showed his proficiency in switching codes quickly, having only just finished cricket the week before. In a bizarre subplot, Hourigan ran the risk of missing this game, as his cricket Grand Final looked like it was going to run into Easter at one stage.

Willaton, who won the North Gippsland Football-Netball League Best and Fairest last year as a jockey-sized mid, perhaps dispelled some commentary surrounding how someone of his size would go at the next level. His third term alone would be enough to suggest he won’t be out of his depth in the Gippsland League, granted there will be harder opponents to come. As simple as it sounds, the adage that ‘good players are good at any level’ might ring true in this instance.

Walking away from a match six-goal winners with a team of kids against a side tipped to be a finals contender, coach Hamilton said it was an auspicious performance.

“We just came here to get the points, we were a bit unsure of them and they were probably a bit unsure of us. Round 1 (first game) you just want the win and we got the win away up here, in front of a good crowd,” he said.

“Both teams brought a lot of high pressure and both teams made a lot of mistakes. It was a weight of numbers in the end, I think we maybe just got more numbers to the contest.”

When asked if he felt like he was coaching a senior team or a Gippsland Power team, Hamilton said there was a few points to take into account.

“It’s a bit different because I coached a lot of them in the fourths and thirds for Traralgon, so I’ve coached a fair few over the time,” he said.

“There is a little bit of a mix of experience with Loprese, (Connor) Ambler, (Tate) Marsh, we have a little bit of a mix. Players like Tye Hourigan and Louis D’Angelo are pretty experienced, even though they are only 22, they’ve been around for a while.

“As a coach I think you want to downplay it to the public and lower expectations, but internally we have expectations on ourselves, we believe we’ve assembled a really elite group of talent. We are a little bit on the younger side but that can be a bonus, it looks to me the league may be a little bit open, but we’ll wait and see.”

Hamilton has highly respected Traralgon figures in Dan McKenna, Matt Northe and Paul ‘Jumbo’ McCulloch as his assistant coaches, along with Loprese and Jackson McMahon as on-field assistants.

Hamilton confirmed McKenna has definitely retired, despite some suggestion he might play this year, while Northe is sitting out this season having had ACL surgery last December.

The Maroons however are hopeful of having Tristen Waack at some stage this season, pending VFL commitments with Northern Bullants.

While it remains to be seen how many games Waack plays for Traralgon, one assumes they will try and get him the four needed to qualify for finals.

“They (Northern) are a standalone team so he might get more opportunity than a Doultree (Traralgon player Chance Doultree) with Footscray, but we’ll see, anytime we have him it will be a bonus,” Hamilton said of the new recruit.

Rees, Tom Blenheim, Cooper Harvey, Byron Vickery, Josh Lando and Hugh Longbottom were prominent for Bairnsdale.