AJAX has been a mainstay in the Victorian Amateur Football Association (VAFA) B-grade section since they were promoted following their 2011 premiership triumph in the division below.
But that impressive record of longevity is facing its sternest test this Saturday (May 26) as Mark “Choco” Williams’ depleted and inexperienced side faces the real threat of relegation after a horror start to the season.
“I’ve been pretty surprised at how the players, coaches and committee have kept themselves up. It’s obviously a tough time when the team is not winning, but the enthusiasm each week is still high,” Williams told The AJN.
Last weekend’s 50-point thrashing at the hands of fellow strugglers Parkdale was the club’s sixth consecutive loss since opening the season with a promising 59-point win over Old Haileybury. Their average losing margin since then has been 10 goals.
Only percentage separates the Jackas and the drop zone, where their next round opponents Monash Blues currently sit.
The Jackas were destined for their first B-grade finals appearance in almost 40 years last season, before the Maccabiah Games saw a host of players leave mid-season, with the club then missing out on the finals by a game and percentage.
So why, just seven games into a new season with an AFL premiership coach at the helm, are the Jackas entrenched in a battle to stay alive in B-grade?
A big contributing factor has been the inability to defend against the “big boys”. The Jackas have conceded almost 110 points a game, the third most across the top three VAFA grades.
An untimely spate of retirements, and constitutional rules limiting recruiting to within Jewish constraints, have put them in this grave and unforeseen predicament.
Heading the long list of departures was premiership defender Ben Kalmus, who was a rock on the last line of defence for the Jackas for 168 games. Younger brother Josh also pulled the pin on his 111-game career. Another big loss was the retirement of former captain and defensive stalwart Nick Marks.
Adding to the club’s woes was the shock exit of Eugene Routman after only a few games this season. Further skill and experience was cruelly lost from the back half when Ash Kalb went down with an ACL injury in the final game of last season.
The 142-game veteran was enjoying a stellar year, which saw him finish in the top five of the section’s best and fairest.
“We knew at the start of the year it was going to be tough. We tried to get recruits to the club and found that difficult,” Williams said.
The past three best and fairest winners are still at the club – Josh Ludski, Brad Caplan and Adam Caplan – however, a mixture of injuries, form and work commitments haven’t allowed the trio to return to their game-breaking best.
To make matters worse, star goal-kicking duo David Fayman and Jake Lew have had their own injury concerns, as have defender Daniel Cohen, small forward Dean Rotenberg and WA import Zak Fleisher.
Fifteen of the 22 who played last weekend for the Jackas were 23-years-old or younger, and Williams has blooded seven debutants this season.
“Young players who are inexperienced can only concentrate for so long,” Williams added. “That concentration level is something that needs building up, you have to practise it.
“With any team you put together you have to set the right culture and educate, which takes time. We’re backing our system and believe in it.”