By Lucas Ball
Holcombe captain Harriet Pittard is looking forward to her side getting their Vitality Division One South campaign underway at Southgate on Saturday afternoon (4:30pm), believing the group are in a strong position heading into the first round of fixtures.
Holcombe, coached by Great Britain international Nick Bandurak, were relegated from the Vitality Premier Division in 2022/23 but are hoping for an immediate return to the top tier, strengthened by the summer arrivals of Jade van der Zwan, Deanna Ritchie, Lucy Whalley, Tilly Tillings, Hannah Bond and Lottie Bingham.
Bandurak has also added another New Zealand international to his coaching team in Brad Read, working alongside Hayden Phillips.
Pittard said: “Last season was disappointing but I feel like it’ll be quite exciting this year to go and have a chance to score some goals, something we’ve lacked in the last few seasons and hopefully win some games, some games on the trot as well which would be quite nice! Hopefully that will get our confidence up and that’ll be really key for this group.
“With the boys coaching and the new girls in the group, the energy’s really great and I think that we’re slowly getting there in terms of re-building our confidence. I think this first league game will really put everyone at ease providing it goes the way we want it to go. The energy in the group has been great.
“In terms of pre-season games, I think we’ve surprised ourselves a little, especially in terms of our physicality. Tactically, we’re a new group so there’s been things we’ve had to work through but that is definitely getting there. Things haven’t always gone our way in all of the matches but that’s great for us, it will stand us in good stead. In terms of the new girls, they’ve brought lots of energy on the ball, physicality and speed. Our new players are very fast, especially up front so hopefully we’ll see some really exciting play this season.
“I think a big thing for us this season is that we don’t know as much about the teams we’re coming up against. Playing in the Premier Division for the past however many years, every game you’re able to go into it with full tactical plans, fully briefed and you’d know details on every single player and have so many clips. This year, there’s a lot more unknown, so especially in these first set of games before Christmas it will probably be more generic plans and team talks for example.
“I think that’s quite exciting, though. It gives us a chance to prove to ourselves that we don’t always need those big briefings and that we can react to whatever challenge we face.
“100% [it’ll allow us to focus more on stamping our authority on matches], and it will be a big year for players to re-gain their confidence in the hopes of something very special happening at the end of the season but whatever happens, hopefully there’ll be more confidence in the group both individually and as a team.
“From a defensive perspective, it’s been really great to have Brad in. He’s really been able to focus on the defensive line. Nick and Hayden have been great but they’re more focused on the forward and midfield lines. It’s quite nice to have a real defensive focus and he picks up on little things, provides feedback throughout and really owns our PCD [penalty corner defence] stuff so it’s really great that he’s involved and already there’s been progress.”
The new signings, alongside some other players and the coaching team, mean that this Holcombe side boast a wealth of international experience compared to some of their National League counterparts. Equally, the club have a number of strong young players coming through such as Tilly Woodhead and Hannah Carney, both of whom made their competitive first-team debuts last season.
Young players on the fringe of the squad may also have more opportunities to play this season with Holcombe also entering the England Hockey Club Championships, meaning they will have a cup competition to go alongside their league campaign.
“That will hopefully be a big factor for us in getting ahead of other teams, our international experience as a group. We have a few youngsters and that experience will also help them through games. Some other National League sides have quite a few youngsters and our experience will hopefully trump that on the pitch.
“It’s really nice to see the youngsters coming through. Playing at the level we play, it’s inevitable that you’re going to get players in and when you do get the couple that make it through all the way from juniors at a club, it is really nice to see. We’ve got some great home-grown talent coming through now.
“It’s been a couple of years since we’ve entered the cup but again it’s something where you never quite know what you’re going to turn up against. I think it’ll be really good for our youngsters to hopefully step up in some of those matches and be given more of an opportunity to build their confidence. It’s always good to get more gameplay into the group.”
Bandurak’s side get their campaign underway at 4:30pm at Southgate Hockey Centre on Saturday, with Holcombe’s men also in action at 7pm the same evening against Southgate in the Premier Division.
Pittard added: “I love the double-header days, there’s always this huge energy and I feel like the girls definitely get that little bit more excited, we’re in it with the boys, watch the boys afterwards and there’s a nice club feel even if it’s not a home game.”
Live updates will be provided on our social media channels on Saturday while highlights will be available on our Facebook, Instagram and YouTube following the match.
Image: Theresa Field