Scottish Premiership action gets underway this weekend
This season starts with a new Scottish Hockey Premiership and the game now divided into four quarters amongst other changes, but all eyes will be on Grange (men) and Edinburgh University (women) to see if they can retain their league titles.
It would appear that Grange are in the throes of transition, their line-up this season will be markedly different from the side that won the treble in style last time out.
Most significantly David Knipe stands down as coach after four successful years at the helm. He has decided “it is time for a break and to re-charge the batteries after an extremely successful period in charge of Grange.” The champions will now be under the dual aegis of Callum Milne, an influential player over the last six years, and Stevie Grubb who steps up from two years as second team coach.
But the Edinburgh side will have to retain their crown without the services of midfield dynamo Cammie Fraser, prolific striker Frank Ryan, Greg Hopkinson along with Todd Mills – they have all retired. Also gone is Dylan Bean who returns to Australia.
In compensation, Grange have signed up the services of Scotland keeper David Forrester from French side Montrouge, along with new Aussie import Josh McRae who will bolster the forward line. Further, Will Shepherdson returns from Edinburgh University while talented youngsters Jamie Croll, Cameron Ede and Joel Davenport will be fighting to break into the first team line-up
New manager Martin Shepherdson said: “We expect to be very competitive in the league and cup, and also aim to prove competitive in the EHL although it comes very early in the season for our new squad.”
For Grange this weekend`s opening clash is against Kelburne. The Paisley club finished last season in ninth place and only avoided the drop in a relegation play-off. Kelburne are still under the control of coach Gordon Shepherd and it will be interesting to see if last season`s late surge of form continues into this term.
So who will be in line to challenge for honours should Grange falter?
Grove Menzieshill were last season`s runners-up, and should be challengers again. But they will have to maintain the momentum without talented striker Cameron Golden, he has left these shores for top Dutch side Klein Zwitzerland.
The Taysiders begin their campaign at home to Hillhead who finished seventh last time.
Western Wildcats also have the potential to make their mark with a pack of talented youngsters. Last season they rose to the occasion by finishing third in the table, only a point behind Grove Menzieshill, but they faltered somewhat at the final hurdle in all three competitions when the chips were down.
The Wildcats are also under new coaching management, former Scotland midfielder Vishal Marwaha takes over from Harry Dunlop. Early proof of Marwaha`s influence might manifest itself at Titwood on Saturday when the Western Wildcats take on Clydesdale in a local fixture.
Last season the Titwood outfit had their ups and their downs, and finally finished sixth. Ciaran Crawford continues as coach and will hope that they start their season on a high and dent Marwaha`s aspirations.
The final match is an East coast derby between Edinburgh University and Watsonians.
Newly promoted Dundee Wanderers will have to wait another week to made their top flight baptism, their scheduled fixture with Uddingston is postponed to the following week.
Last season the women`s competition went down to the wire, Sam Judges`s Edinburgh University finally taking the crown with a three point margin. The following pack of Clydesdale Western, Wildcats and Dundee Wanderers all finished on 41 points at the end of the day – a competitive denouement.
As always, with an annual turn-over of players, Judge is cautious about the future.
Judge said: “We`ve got a young squad, but we`re looking at a top four finish.”
Perhaps her caution is based on the influential players that have moved on. Gone are Ellie Hutcheson who has moved to the USA, Zara Malseed back to Ireland and Sophie Maunder to England.
Yet Judge also listed some promising new recruits, Katie Robertson from Grove Menzieshill, Erin Gilchrist from the USA, Eve Pearson and Georgia Jones from Watsonians, under-21 international Jika Nyirenda from Beeston and finally Kirsten Cannon from Western Wildcats – not a bad haul to bolster the talent at Peffermill.
The new students will have to hit the ground running as Watsonians are the visitors to Peffermill. Over the last few years Watsonians have made steady improvement under coach Keith Smith and finished a creditable fifth last season.
But Edinburgh`s monopoly of honours took a dent when Western Wildcats grabbed top spot in the European play-offs with a final 2-0 win over Clydesdale, Heather Aitken and Megan Cox doing the damage. Having broken through in the domestic scene and qualified for Europe for the first time in the club`s history, Western Wildcats will hope to go on to build on last season`s breakthrough.
Western Wildcats have purred along nicely under player/coach Kaz Cuthbert, especially with Kate Holmes, McKenzie Bell, Catriona Booth, Rachel Bain and Becky Ward still in the ranks for this season`s campaign.
“The squad is looking strong and the aim for the season is to retain our title as Grand Finals champions,” said Cuthbert.
Newly promoted Merlin Gordonians could be the first side to feel impact of the Western Wildcats` claws in the opening fixture in the North-East.
Likely challengers Clydesdale Western and Dundee Wanderers will hope to get off to a winning start at home to Hillhead and GHK respectively.
In the final fixture on the opening day`s card Grove Menzieshill, a disappointment last season to find themselves out of the top four, take on Glasgow University who managed to survive their first exposure to the top flight.
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