THE clubs are finally under starters orders in the Dukes North East Premier League First Division.
The longest pre-season practice session in history has come to an end with the real stuff about to start on Saturday when 10 teams set out on the promotion glory trail.
The Mini League is now consigned to the history books, with Brandon snatching the one and only title from under the noses of a waterlogged Washington, and these two teams will no doubt be among the front-runners when the real prize is handed out at the end of the season.
Washington begin their bid with a trip to Seaham Harbour. A year ago, this would have been seen as a bit of an away banker, but not anymore.
The Harbour sank to the foot of the table in 2013, and by a considerable margin, but in the Mini League matches played there was enough promise shown to hold out hopes of better things to come this summer.
Cricket manager Stuart Lacey points to recent displays as a good indicator, saying: “With a bit of luck, we could have won all three of the games we managed to get played in the Mini League, coming desperately close on a couple of occasions.
“The signing of Ian Pattison has been all-important to us – he’s a tremendous player with loads of experience and he’ll be a great help to the others as we try and bring a few of our younger players through.”
Pattison leads an unchanged line-up against Washington, who have to reckon without the not inconsiderable services of Darren Hickey.
Youngster Tom Colledge earns a call-up in his place.
Skipper Ash Thorpe was bitterly disappointed that they could not beat the weather last week – they just needed a win to take the Mini League title, but the ground was so badly waterlogged that the match was called off at 9am.
Over at Brandon, they were out in force mopping up, and, with the aid of their all-square cover, they got their game on and won a nerve-tingler against Felling by two wickets to claim the pre-season bragging rights.
But promotion is the all consuming ambition, and they begin that challenge with a trip to South Hetton. Their only absentee is Andrew Walker, who is sidelined by a calf injury.
Skipper Scott Nattrass says: “The lads are buzzing – they’re ready to go.”
South Hetton will ask Ryan Dowse to keep wicket after the return of Tom Nicholson to his former club, Peterlee.
Sixteen-year-old seam bowler Ryan Taylor earns a call-up to fill the vacant seat in the home dressing room.
Boldon are pleased with the squad they have put in place, and they have a full strength line-up for their opening fixture at home to South Shields.
Shields have a useful new addition to their ranks, having signed Durham University student Rob Gibson. He looks to have a good cricketing pedigree, having played for Hampshire second team as well as in Premier League cricket in the south, and they should have the use of his services for the next six to seven weeks until the summer break.
There are two other new faces in the offing, although they will not be available until the school playing season comes to an end. Ryan West, who is in the Scotland Academy, and Sam Taylor-Gell should be available in a few weeks time, and both have represented Durham at Under-17 level.
Sacriston will expect to be there or thereabouts again after their final-day heartbreak last September, but they start their programme at Felling with Harry Hubber sidelined by illness.
Tony Claughan comes into the starting line-up against a team who leaned heavily on James Crosthwaite last week, the Aussie youngster taking on Brandon almost single-handedly in a brilliant batting display.
The final fixture sees Willington entertaining Eppleton. The hosts will be at full strength, with Steve Alderson back from holiday and Arron Proud free from work commitments.
Eppleton must do without the services of David Wilkinson, who is attending a family wedding, so Gary Purcell steps up for this one.