SINCE joining the Shoalhaven Heads/Berry Football Club in 1991, Hayden Lavender has put his heart and soul into the club.
During that time, he's held many roles, from playing to coaching to a committee member - all made even more impressive by the fact he had a brain tumour removed in 2007 and had to recover from cancer.
Since then, Lavender guided the third grade side to the competition championship and premiership in 2015, before steering the under 17s side to a grand final in 2018 and title in 2019.
On top of that, the 37-year-old been a committee member, the club's senior men's co-coordinator and first grade captain.
So he thought the natural next step was to take on the role as first grade coach and help his side return to the Shoalhaven District Football Association finals, after a number of lean seasons in first grade.
"As many of the players I had played during my time as the under 17s coach had improved out of sight and were playing in men's grade fairly regularly, I thought I was a natural fit to take on the top job," Lavender said.
"Bridging that gap between juniors and seniors is an important factor for the club to address.
"It gives the boys and girls coming through the system a clear pathway if they are staying in the area and don't wish to pursue their footballing at a higher level in Wollongong or Sydney."
Although he'll admit he's still a little wet behind the ears in terms of his coaching, Lavender is confident has strengths will help the club move forward.
"Coaching is a pretty new endeavour for me," he said.
"I was actually approached by Brad Banks to coach the under 16s boys back in 2017, after coaching the Heads third grade men's team to a grand final win in 2015.
"I've held that under 16/17s boys coaching role up until last year after we won another grand final when I put my hat in the ring to coach the men's first grade side.
"Having been at the club for so many years, I believe I hold the respect of the players.
"Especially having played with them through some great and tough times - there is a strong bond which is important from a coaches perspective.
"Also, being coached by great mentors such as Ray Tweedie, Norm Boardman and Paul Cubbo has definitely made me more conscious of not just playing the game but understanding it a lot better.
"I'm aiming to have a more structured training environment, which gives players specific feedback to drills, which will help us refine our games as a whole."
While the Sharks finished 11th last season, with only three wins to the names, Lavender admits there's a number of positives his team have built on.
"As a player, last season was obviously pretty disappointing but it wasn't through lack of effort from the playing group, as they all have a lot of heart and pride for the club colours," he said.
"However, it's no secret we have struggled with youth and depth at the club for a few years now at the senior men's level, which is something all clubs go through at different periods.
"In saying that, there were some very promising signs at the back end of the year when we had all players available, such as our 8-nil win against Callala.
"While that was good, there's still a lot of hard work and improvement needed this season - an aspect we have been working on as a club since pre-season started in January.
"There was a great atmosphere and sense of excitement at the club, despite the past few year's results, right up until the season was suspended.
"Although we've been stuck on the sidelines, it's encouraging to know with a few new and returning faces at training, the club seems to be headed back in the right direction."
Those additions include Hayden Chapman, Lewis King, Josh Marks, Nick Banic, Oliver Hammond, Alex Priest and Jiare Crowley, while Jarrod Lowe, James MacDonald and Jye Findlay have left the Vic Zealand Oval based club.
"This year, there will be a strong youth focus, emphasising our strengths in skill, speed and fitness - all aspect we'd be concentrating on during our pre-season, which started in January," Lavender said.
"Having a strong base fitness level is important before you can do anything meaningful.
"Doing team or individual drills at half pace, that doesn't replicate a game scenario, won't help anyone - so that was a big focus.
"Communication, technique and control under pressure and positional awareness have been aspects we are looking to improve on.
"We've also increased our attacking options going forward while not sacrificing much in the back third.
"All the boys are keen to prove themselves, both within our club which creates healthy competition for spots, but also against the league's top sides."
One of those youngsters Lavender has high hopes for is Scott Culey.
"There are a lot of younger players all looking to make their mark in the competition and make a name for themselves," he said.
"Without a doubt one of the most promising is Scott Culey, who I believe is the best young player in the competition.
"Others players who I think can be x-factors for us this season are club stalwart Kim Leonard - who will be looking to build on a really strong 2019 season and Alex Priest and Nathan Thomas, who have both had outstanding pre-seasons."
While the delay of the season's kick-off, due to coronavirus, has stalled the club's team training sessions, Lavender acknowledges all the players are still working hard on their own.
"It's an unprecedented time and it's obviously hard to get face to face sessions done but we have been regular communication on a Facebook group chat, where players are kept up to date with the latest developments," he said.
"I've put out a few training ideas for the guys to use but ultimately it's on how motivated they are to do individual training.
"With the relaxing of social distancing rules, I'll be working closely with the club to ensure we are following all the guidelines to get back to team training (albeit in smaller groups) as soon as possible."
Despite these interruptions, Lavender and his side still have clear goals for 2020.
"Any coach would be lying if they said they didn't want to be playing finals football," he said.
"But I'm also pragmatic and admit that while it's nice to aim high, our goals this year will be centred around growing the young footballers we have at the club and ensuring they keep developing to a high standard, which will hopefully keep the older guys hungry to keep their spots in the top grades.
"Ingraining a style of football that players can slot into and know their roles on any given day will be something I hope to achieve."