It was a season of what ifs for the Western Bulldogs who showed class and strength in the face of an interrupted season.
Hit by isolation and health and safety protocols during both the preseason and once games kicked off, the Dogs then suffered the loss of important forward Isabel Huntington and Kirsten McLeod was ruled out for the season due to concussion.
Despite this, the side managed three wins in a row and handled seven games in 30 days with little complaint.
Over the next few weeks, womens.afl will look at each of the seasons of the 14 AFLW teams in reverse ladder order.
Coach: Nathan Burke
Leadership group: Ellie Blackburn (captain), Brooke Lochland (vice captain), Ashleigh Guest, Bailey Hunt, Isabel Huntington, Kirsty Lamb, Bonnie Toogood.
2022 home and away finishing position: 7th, four wins, one draw and five losses, 95.2 per cent
Best team performance: The Dogs' round six win over Adelaide wasn't just their best team performance of the season, but arguably the most spirited game we saw from any side this year. The Western Bulldogs were the only side to beat the Crows during the home and away season, and they did it at Norwood Oval. The Dogs kicked four opening quarter goals to get the fast start, made even more impressive by the face that Adelaide has held opponents goalless across seven of its 10 home and away games, conceding just one goal in each other the other two opening quarters. Then, when the Crows surged in the second half, the Dogs - who at that point were down two players on the bench - stuck fat, battened down the hatches and ultimately prevailed by a solitary point.
Best individual performance: Kirsty Lamb has had the best season of her career, taking every aspect of her game up a notch, but it was her day out against the Tigers in round five that stood out. Using her season-high 27 disposals at 70.4 per cent efficiency, Lamb took nine marks, gained 454 metres and rightly earned the maximum 10 Coaches Votes.
NAB AFLW Rising Star nominations: Elisabeth Georgostathis, Nell Morris-Dalton, Isabelle Pritchard
Debutants: Amanda Ling, Aurora Smith, Elizabeth Snell, Annabel Strahan, Jemima Woods (AFLW debuts), Elle Bennetts, Richelle Cranston (club debut)
Retirees: Ashleigh Guest
Delistings: Yet to be announced
Most improved: In defence Katie Lynch took her game to a new level this season despite a heavily interrupted preseason. A knee complaint saw her miss round one, but once she hit the field in the Dogs' return from a two week layoff, Lynch didn't let up. The defender averaged a career-high 12 disposals, 4.7 marks and 5.1 intercepts across her nine games.
Star recruit: Taken at number 27 in last year's draft, Elizabeth Snell added some grunt for the Dogs through the middle of the ground. Despite missing four games due to health and safety protocols and illness, what Snell showed certainly excited Dogs fans as she averaged 7.5 disposals, three tackles and 2.5 intercepts in her debut season.
Unsung hero: In a strong defensive line, Naomi Ferres often goes unheralded, but the 24-year-old is one of the Dogs' most reliable players. This season Ferres registered 55 intercepts - equal-most at the club - as she averaged a career-high 13.5 disposals and 2.6 marks.
- Isabella Grant's move into defence initially looked to be a stop gap as the side battled a number of injuries to their backline, but the move ultimately ended up as a genius magnet shift. Grant's athleticism and competitive nature saw her excel in the one on one and also add to the Bulldogs' desire to generate plenty of attack out of the back half.
- Backing in several emerging players to add midfield depth serves the Dogs well this season and will continue to do so in future seasons. Jess Fitzgerald made her mark around the ball last year, and built on that this season, while both Elisabeth Georgostathis and Isabelle Pritchard proved their strength at the contest. Nell Morris-Dalton and Elizabeth Snell got a look in around the ball, too, as Nathan Burke looked to provide support for stalwarts Ellie Blackburn and Kirsty Lamb.
- With half of the list aged 21 or under heading into the season, consistency in game would have been a forgivable issue for the Dogs this year, but their ability to stick to a game plan - often an opponent-specific game plan - was impressive. This trait was largely how they got the jump on Adelaide and pushed Fremantle until the dying moments. Talent is one thing, but footy smarts are a game changer.
What needs improvement:
- Injury really exposed the side's forward line, largely leaving Bonnie Toogood as the lone key forward with Isabel Huntington unavailable. Finding more depth and height in attack will be crucial to the Dogs' continued improvement going forward.
Early call for next season: Without endless disruptions, the Dogs will be able to really get their quick running game going thanks to the furnace-like experience many of their young players gained this season.