GOLD Coast, although narrowly missing out on finals, enjoyed its best season since entering the competition in 2020.
With new captain Tara Bohanna at the helm and a strong midfield group that gathered momentum across the course of the year, the Suns were no longer the easy-beats of the competition.
Head coach: Cameron Joyce
Leadership group: Tara Bohanna (captain), Bess Keaney (vice-captain), Jamie Stanton, Ellie Hampson
Ladder position: 9th, five wins and five losses, 88%
Debutants: Gabrielle Biedenweg-Webster, Georgia Clayden, Giselle Davies, Kaylee Kimber, Claire Ransom, Krystal Scott, Jasmyn Smith (AFLW debut), Ashlee Atkins, Courtney Jones, Tahlia Meyer (club debut)
Milestones: Daisy D'Arcy, Bess Keaney, Serene Watson, Claudia Whitfort (25 games)
Rising Star nominations: Daisy D'Arcy (round two)
Retirements: Ashlee Atkins, Krystal Scott
Best team performance
Gold Coast's round two performance against West Coast was not only a strong bounce-back from a frustrating round one loss, but an impressive four quarter performance from the emerging side. Eventually winning by 33 points, Courtney Jones kicked two goals in her first game for the side, while five other players chipped in on the scoreboard.
Alison Drennan worked very hard to break a tag from Eagles' midfielder Aisling McCarthy, and in doing so went on to win 24 disposals and kick a goal in a best on ground performance.
The Suns did well to make use of the outside space available, running hard in predictable patterns for teammates and did not concede a goal until there were nine minutes remaining in the game. Small defender Daisy D'Arcy earned a Rising Star nomination for her performance in the process.
Best individual performance
Used as a 'fix it' player this year by the Suns, Kalinda Howarth's performance in her side's round four win over St Kilda was exceptional. Howarth runs hard with a real attacking intent no matter which line she is playing on, but that doesn't take away from the defensive side of her game.
Against the Saints, Howarth won 22 disposals, seven rebounds and nine intercepts while also gaining 428m, registering six score involvements, and kicking two goals. It was the epitome of two-way running, and proved to be a crucial part of Gold Coast's second win of the season.
Originally signed as an inactive replacement player at the start of the year, Jac Dupuy emerged this season as a crucial cog in Gold Coast's forward line.
Last season, Dupuy's impact was more structural, adding another tall who could play forward and support Lauren Bella through the ruck in the absence of Maddison Levi. This season, however, Dupuy became a dangerous prong of the Suns' attack in her own right.
Dupuy kicked seven goals, while averaging 10.4 disposals (+3.8 compared to last season), 2.1 marks (+1.2) and 2.3 score involvements (+1.3). Aside from her strength in the air, her knack for creating a scoring opportunity out of nowhere was especially valuable.
While the loss of Kate Surman to expansion and Jamie Stanton to an ACL injury early in the season spelled danger for Gold Coast's forward line, the recruitment of Courtney Jones was a deft move.
The former Blue not only added firepower for the Suns, ending up the club's equal-leading goalkicker alongside captain Tara Bohanna, but she also offered a link into the forward line, and a pressure game inside 50.
Jones averaged 10.1 disposals, 3.2 tackles and four score involvements throughout the season, creating a solid three-headed forward structure that averaged the highest score in club history.
While much praise was rightly heaped on Charlie Rowbottom and Alison Drennan through the midfield, Claudia Whitfort's impact was equally important. Whitfort was the Suns' best player when it came to turning clearances into forward 50 entries, transitioning to outside space reliably.
Whitfort's style of play is the emerging prototype AFLW midfielder, strong at the contest and then able to break out and drive the ball forward, and she complements Drennan and Rowbottom beautifully.
What went well
This season Gold Coast possessed a resolve to fight back in games where it allowed the opposition to win momentum. Working to take back control of games was something the Suns did repeatedly, and in fact won some games from that fightback. Their round nine game against Carlton was a clear example of this, going into half time goalless and down, only to work through the deficit and win by 27 points.
Much of that fight was thanks to a stronger forward structure, led by Tara Bohanna, Jac Dupuy and Courtney Jones. The trio were responsible for 53.5 per cent of Gold Coast's goals for the season, with Kalinda Howarth kicking six of her own.
That clearer structure ahead of the ball meant the Suns were able to maintain the ball in for forward half for longer periods of time, creating more opportunities to score while also heaping pressure on opposition defences.
What needs improvement
While that fightback mentality was a strength, the Suns' vulnerability leading to the need to fightback was less so. They tended to start games slowly, and peter out in final quarters, which ultimately hurt their push for finals. That lack of consistency across four quarters was often identified by stronger opponents, who would capitalise in that time.
The Suns' ball use also regularly let them down. While their average disposal efficiency of 58.7 per cent is the best in club history, it was not the clean ball use that lends itself to really controlling play. Although finding more of the ball than they ever have before throughout the season, it was often wasted due to poor disposal.
Off -season focus
Further developing the skills of its list will be an important task during Gold Coast's off season, particularly ball use when players are under pressure. A large part of that will also be improving the connection between the Suns' midfield strength and those roaming out in space.