Finding a player who can make comparisons between this season's Hawke's Bay United soccer team and last summer's is a tough assignment.
Just three players from last year's team, midfielder Alex Palezevic, defender Fergus Neil and keeper Ruben Parker will turn out for the Brett Angell-coached outfit when they open their ISPS Handa Premiership campaign against the Wellington Phoenix Reserves at Napier's Bluewater Stadium on Monday. It could have been four but the Thirsty Whale-sponsored Hawke's Bay United team's England-born striker Sam Mason-Smith is on a one-month trial in the hope of securing a professional contract in South Africa.
However Palezevic, 20, who will start his third season with the team (it could have been four but he missed the 2015-16 campaign with a broken foot) isn't concerned about the lack of familiarity.
"We were beaten semifinalists last summer and we want to make the final this season. Yes Sam [Mason-Smith] is a bit of a loss but we've got a very good squad with good players in every position," Palezevic explained when he pulled over for a Subway meal in Dannevirke while driving from Wellington to Bay View for last night's training.
Coach Angell will be happy to hear that was a healthy option.
Palezevic pointed out their three pre-season games against other Premiership teams allowed United to look at teams across the table and gauge where they stand. They lost 1-0 to Hamilton Wanderers in a game where the score was 0-all until the 60th minute mark when Angell rested several of his first stringers, drew 0-all with Team Wellington and beat Wellington Phoenix Reserves 3-2.
"It's good that Monday's opponents were our last friendly," Palezevic said.
A Kiwi-born son of Serb immigrants, Palezevic is in his second year of communications and marketing studies at Massey University in the capital so will this season continue the regular drives from Wellington to train and play for the Bay. This season he will be accompanied by fellow midfielder Birhanu Tye, who played for Angell and co two seasons ago and also studies in Wellington.
"I don't trust Birhanu to drive so we don't share the driving," Palezevic replied when quizzed on the driving duties.
That friendly banter was an obvious sign their squad is a happy one.
"We're getting to that stressful time of the year before exams but I'm focused on my footy," Palezevic said.
After Monday's game he will remain in the Bay until the following Sunday's away game against Hamilton before flying back to Wellington for his first exam. Should his teammates have similar levels of commitment and are as good as what Palezevic said they are, there's no reason why Hawke's Bay United supporters shouldn't expect a final berth at the end of the season.
There will be plenty of interest in the form of attacking midfielder Gavin Hoy who came into the Hawke's Bay equation after Angell scouted the Canadian's talent during the player's Lotto Central League stint with Team Taranaki during the winter. Other newcomers with potential to become regular starters include Kiwi Graham Craven, a Central League defender with Palmerston North Marist last winter, English midfielder Adam Thurston and Wesley Cain, a Canadian winger.
Veteran defender Bill Robertson returns to the side after captaining the premiership-winning and O-League campaigners Team Wellington last summer. If he can play to his potential and guide his fellow defenders to be as rock-like, the Wellington Phoenix Reserves strikers should have a tough time finding the back of the net.
While Palezevic has every right to be fizzing with confidence after the three pre-season outings Monday's match will give the hosts are more accurate gauge as to where they are at.
Teams for the 4.35pm match:
Hawke's Bay United: Ruben Parker (GK), Hayden McHenery, Graham Craven, Bill Robertson, Alex Palezevic, Wesley Cain, Adam Thurston, Gavin Hoy, Jim Hoyle, Liam Hayes, Fergus Neil, Birhanu Taye, Mackenzie Waite, Daniel Robinson (GK).
Wellington Phoenix Reserves (from the following squad): Keegan Smith (GK), Pranay Singh, Jake Williams, Liam Moore, Liam Wood, Liberto Cacace, Gianni Bouzoukis, Ollie Whyte, Willem Ebbinge, Sam Sutton, Ollie Valentine, Luke Tongue, Sam Philip, Ben Waine, Matt Conroy, Zac Jones (GK), Manyumow Achol, Jacob Masseurs, James McGarry, Sarpreet Singh, Logan Rogerson.
■ The annual Napier City Rovers under-19 youth tournament begins at Napier's Park Island today and continues until Monday. Twenty four teams including last year's winners Western Springs and runners-up Birkenhead of Auckland will battle in the premier division.
Five Hawke's Bay teams, Porthill, Marist, Taradale, Havelock North and hosts Rovers, will be among 22 in the Satellite division. Quarter-finals in both divisions will be played from 4pm tomorrow and the premier division final will kick off at Bluewater Stadium at 12.30pm on Monday after the Satellite division final.