The race for promotion to the North West Premier Division gets under way on Saturday and yet again the Championship has a really compelling look about it for 2017.
Indeed if anything there seems to be even less separating most of the sides this time as the 8-team set-up continues to bring about an ultra-competitive second tier.
Relegated Strabane will start as favourites to bounce straight back and new skipper Barry Scott has been able to retain pretty much all of the squad from their Premier League campaign.
Truth to tell the Red Caps will probably think they are better equipped this year for the addition of Mark Snodgrass - back after a year at Killyclooney - and Andy Barr who has plenty of form at this level.
Kevin Pretorius will have a year under his belt as well and the South African showed enough in his debut season to suggest he could be a handful in the division.
Snodgrass, Aaron Gillespie and Ryan Gallagher all spent the winter playing club cricket in Australia and it could be very interesting to see what that experience has provided for each of them, and for Gillespie in particular.
It’s a home start against St Johnston for Scott’s team and the visitors will look to put a modest 2016 behind them this coming summer.
Any turnaround will have to be provided by the same squad however as David Lapsley looks to the younger players to show that they have taken something from the struggles of 12 months ago.There is undoubted quality in the side and plenty of nous as well but where the Donegal men occasionally struggle is in the opening exchanges of the season when one or two key players are still completing University terms.
It’s a very tough start for them if they are light this weekend and an away win would be something of a surprise to start with.
One team who are well equipped to challenge Strabane are Newbuildings and there’s another new skipper here as Marty Mehaffey takes over the mantle from Dale Culbert who has a wedding to plan!
The return of Peat Salmon is a huge boost to the North West’s youngest senior club and while losing Dean Mehaffey to Fox Lodge is a blow, the arrival of Adam Warnock is a bonus. The former Bready man didn’t feature much last season but is a very useful competitor when in the mood.
Salmon though is key and if he reproduces his previous form, Newbuildings won’t be far away.
One drawback for Mehaffey’s men is that they will complete the first part of their league season away from home in a bid to carry out the remaining work at their new ground that could conceivably see them playing senior cricket there in 2017. It would be some effort from Newbuildings if that were to happen considering the very short space of time since work began on the playing surface.
A spokesman for the North West has confirmed that experienced Cricket Ireland groundsman Philip Frost inspected the new facility in the past few weeks and has made several recommendations of work to the club that could help get the ground the go-ahead later in the season.
The Union have confirmed that they are continuing to liaise with Newbuildings and the ground will be asked to host a couple of friendlies towards the end of May which will be assessed in terms of fitness for play this year.
Newbuildings will start their campaign at Bonds Glen where the home side have a new professional this season in Jacques Mulder.
The Bee Gees struggled badly last year despite some excellent numbers from skipper Graham Boyd and the efforts of Trevor Britton, who has since returned to CIYMS.
Mulder’s inclusion is likely to bring about at least some degree of improvement as is the return of Richard Hepburn to his old stomping ground. “Mackey” is just the type of player to give Boyd’s team a bit of an edge and while it’s easy to see them moving away from the bottom of the table this season, it may not be quite enough to get them past Newbuildings on Saturday.
Burndennett have brought in an overseas player too as they bid to improve their hand after a couple of lukewarm efforts. West Indian Ovid Richardson is the player charged with that responsibility and he certainly boasts a useful profile.
Key for ’Dennett as is nearly always the case will be getting their first choice side out on a regular basis and the club are hopeful that that will be the case this summer.
First up for them is the visit of a Glendermott side who suffered by far the most of any North West club over the changes to Borders Agency overseas players regulations. The Rectory men first discovered that Azeem Ghumman wouldn’t be allowed to play this year and were then rocked again when their new man, Oraine Williams, took part in a 1st class match for Jamaica.
It was a case of third time lucky when they finally brought in 21-year old Sheldon Pillay and although not much is known about the batsman, Alan Johnson will be hoping that he can help them to another top half finish.
The final game of the opening day brings together two sides who could easily become involved in the race for honours- Killyclooney and Ballyspallen.
’Clooney recorded their best ever finish in 3rd place last time and skipper Darren Moan believes at least a repeat of that could be on the cards again. Mark Snodgrass is heading back to Strabane but Andy Lynch returns after a year at Eglinton to give the Tyrone side some decent options.
Andre Henry is back in too and he was excellent in his first season while skipper Moan and his brother Giles will aim to provide the experience to a sprinkling of very good young players.
Ballyspallen looked very competitive 12 months ago themselves and few would be surprised to see them make a mark this time.
Lee Ritchie takes over the armband this summer and will want to see his side battle right to the end of the campaign, unlike his beloved Leeds United.
Ritchie seems to have reveled in his new surroundings and he too will be joined by a new overseas player after Darnell McCallum agreed to join the Roe Valley outfit. McCallum looks a really useful addition and with a rapidly improving Graham Kennedy there too - ’Spallen could be the summer’s ‘dark horse’.