Charlestown Azzurri have focused on developing youth this season under new coach Graham Law and after the loss of several senior players.
And while young talent like Riley Smith, Jackson Frendo and Regan Lundy have found their feet to help Azzurri come back from a poor start to the year, two of their experienced players in particular have stood tall in their rise to finals contention.
Goalkeeper Nathan Archbold and utility Rene Ferguson have led the way for Azzurri and were on Friday named among the top five vote-getters in the Graham Jennings Medal for Northern NSW NPL player of the year after nine of 14 rounds. Lambton Jaffas midfielder and 2019 winner Mitch Oxborrow and Broadmeadow's Mitch Rooke and James Virgili were the others.
Charlestown had just one point in the opening four rounds but have won four of their past five games to sit on 13 points with Jaffas and defending premiers Maitland in the mid-table logjam.
They travel to Edden Oval to take on Jaffas in a crucial round 10 game on Saturday.
Despite sitting seventh, Azzurri have the third-best defence in the league with 10 goals conceded - behind only Edgeworth (5) and Magic (9). Archbold has been a major factor in that record.
"He's an Azzurri boy. He loves it there and we love him," Law said.
"He's more than just a keeper. He coaches the kids and everything.
"He's improved out of sight this year, all around. Kicking, commanding his box and coming for crosses. He's a good shot-stopper. We're really happy with him.
"He's very reliable and I think that's what you look for, consistency. I'd rather have that than somebody who's incredible one week and floundering the next."
Ferguson has played in all three lines this season, including up front with four goals in the past three games.
"You can't win anything just with young talent," Law said. "There's got to be experience in there as well.
"Rene's played striker, left midfield and centre-half and been great. And he's one of the most popular guys in the dressing room."
Azzurri downed Jaffas 2-0 two weeks ago before a 2-1 comeback victory over Maitland. Jaffas also bounced back, ending Edgeworth's winning streak with a 3-1 result.
"We'll see if they can back it up," Law said of Jaffas.
"They had the ball [last time] but it was where we wanted them to have it.
"But we've got something for tomorrow. I saw some things in the Edgeworth game that they played that we've worked on this week.
"That's the thing I like about my boys, they want to learn and adapt, so we'll have something slightly different for them tomorrow."
Also Saturday, leaders Edgeworth (24 points) host Valentine (11) and Broadmeadow (19) welcome Weston (14) to Magic Park. On Sunday, Maitland (13) play Newcastle Olympic (14) at Cooks Square Park. Lake Macquarie and Adamstown (both 4) have the bye.
While you're with us, did you know the Newcastle Herald offers breaking news alerts, daily email newsletters and more? Keep up to date with all the local news - sign up here
- Former Knights lower grade player Joel Dark passes away in hospital after suffering an on-field seizure
- Toohey's News, The Podcast Ep. 27: Michael Ennis
- A-League: Topor-Stanley screamer rewarded as Italian collects player of year gong
- Surfing: Morgan Cibilic weighs up Tweed Coast Pro return
- Aidan Guerra tells Newcastle Knights teammates of his decision to retire at season's end