When Chris Shea checked his emails two weeks ago he thought he was being stitched up.
The Vice-President of the Southern Highlands Storm Juniors had just received an email informing him he'd won a Regional Volunteer Award from NSW Rugby League.
After double-checking it was real, Shea said he felt proud to receive recognition for his work starting up the club in 2019.
"I didn't see it coming, the club nominated me," Shea told the Southern Highland News.
"I got an email two days ago. I read it and thought who's been sending emails!
"I normally know what's going on in the club but they blindsided me on this one.
"It's always nice to receive recognition for these sort of things. It's a good award as well. There's so many people who have contributed to getting the Storm up and going."
Shea was involved with the Bowral Rugby League Club Juniors when he realised both they and Moss Vale Dragons Juniors were struggling to field teams.
So in 2018 he began the process of discussing a merger betwen the two rivals with Robertson Spuddies Juniors also teaming up to create the Storm in time for season 2020.
"There were about 80 kids in each club and with those sort of numbers it's hard to field all the teams," he explained.
"Both clubs were getting by but struggling to compete. So myself and a couple of other guys got together and we started nutting out a plan to merge them as well as the Robertson juniors.
"That kicked off in late 2018 and by late 2019 we had merged and we thought if we got about 160 then we'd be breaking even and if we got to 180 that would be good.
"First year we got to about 220 and this year we're close to 240."
While numbers have vindicated the decision, saying goodbye to clubs with over a century of history in the region was at times a hard sell.
But seeing people eventually throw their support behind the concept has made the Storm a success.
"We still recognise the heritage of the old clubs but it just showed that people have an appetite to support the Southern Highlands as a region, not as individual towns," Shea said.
"It wasn't all easy going, there's a fair few passionate people when it comes to their footy clubs but everybody saw the bigger picture."
After one year in the Macarthur-based Group 6 competition, the Storm chose to move to the South Coast Group 7 association in a bid to remain a regional club at heart.
"We've pretty much put ourselves through a whirlwind for the first two years," Shea explained.
"Not only did we merge three clubs together but then we moved to Group 7 after one year in Group 6.
"We had one season there but NSW Rugby League came out with a strategic plan and merging competitions to make them stronger and the teams from the Southern Highlands were being pushed further into Sydney.
"We decided one year in as this fledgling club that we didn't want to go into Sydney, we wanted to stay as a regional rugby league club so we applied to move to Group 7.
"It's more country footy. The opposition clubs aren't as big..it's definitely faster, it's a very skilled, hard competition down there.
"Playing footy in Oran Park, Mount Annan, Camden, you're finishing in Sydney whereas everyone loves finishing in Kiama, Shellharbour or Gerringong. It's pretty nice to finish and go to the beach or grab some fish and chips!"
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