Category: Feature Articles

Walmsley grabs opportunity with both hands

IT was no surprise that Geelong Falcons’ Sophie Walmsley took to Australian Rules without much work, having already rowed, played local netball and school soccer.

“It started last year, I was playing netball with Newtown & Chilwell and I was in Year 12 and the girls that were playing footy on Sunday just said ‘come have a kick’ so that’s where it sort of started,” Walmsley said. “Then the season went and I just loved it and it was sort of my not-as-competitive sport because I was new to it. “Then just got a call from Jase (Jason Armistead, Geelong Falcons Girls coach) in October and then just came down to Falcons and it’s taken off from there.”

Walmsley is no stranger to switching codes, but why choose Australian Rules?

“Probably just the fact it was a new sport and something I hadn’t done before and there was lots of opportunities going around and Falcons is probably the top level I’ve been involved in a sport,” Walmsley said. “The community was really good and I just thought I’m going to take this opportunity and see where it goes to.”

Unlike many others in the TAC Cup Girls, Walmsley has not had the pressure of her final school year weighing down on her, instead focusing on her university studies and enjoying the freedom of football on the weekends.

“Yeah I’ve really loved Falcons,” Walmsley said. “It’s my first year at uni up at Melbourne, so it was sort of just new, footy was new, uni was new too. “It was just a good way to get involved and it’s been great and I’ve been lucky enough to play all the games.”

Walmsley was only nine days away from being a top-age player this season, and while Vic Country could only take one overage player to the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships (Rene Caris), the Falcons’ utility has enjoyed every opportunity thrown her way.

“I was really lucky in that there’s lots of girls who have been in Falcons for a while that are so experienced and play very mature and act very mature,” she said. “I guess I was just lucky I’ve been involved with sport for a while so I’ve been able to know how to step through it all, but just for every other girl that’s young, just have a crack. “Don’t let anyone else stop you, there’s so many other opportunities and pathways. “Girls footy is a prime example. “Who knew that there’d be an AFLW team now there’s VFL teams, there’s TAC Cup which is amazing. “We’re being included in so much. “It’s definitely good for me I’ve been able to get involved with it being older, but for everyone else there’s so many opportunities to take from it.”

Having joined the Western Bulldogs in the Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s competition, Walmsley could hardly believe her luck.

“I’m so super excited about that,” she said post- TAC Cup Girls season. “I really didn’t know much about footy since it was my first year and then Katie (Geerings, Geelong Falcons Female Talent Manager) and Jase have really got me through TAC Cup and have talked to me about the possibilities and then now starting joining with the Bulldogs is just really exciting. Just happy to see where it takes me.”

A super athlete, Walmsley said her fitness has helped her adapt to the new sport, and having supportive teammates has been a bonus.

Mainly endurance has really helped me being consistent across the game,” she said. “Just being able to sit back and watch and get into it, has helped me understand that being in the sport my first year, it doesn’t always come first round, you don’t always have the best game but as we got more into the season I’ve been a lot happier with how I’ve been going. “It’s still new, you’ve just got to accept that and lots of the other girls have helped me realise just how to play it.”

Instead of trying to do too much, the Falcons coaching staff have kept it simple for Walmsley, something she has enjoyed while trying to develop the fundamentals and improve.

“(I’m) Just learning how to play the position and accepting that sometimes your role is just to play a position and not really so effective on every single ball you get,” Walmsley said. “So I’m just focusing on understanding at these levels that’s just how you go about your game, but (all the) coaches have been so helpful with that and helped me understand that it’s the best you can do and all you need to do to play your position.”

Walmsley is taking it one step at the time and as a sports addict she enjoys playing football in the winter and rowing in the summer. In her own words, “Sport is my main hobby.”

Young leader tackles challenges head-on

WEST Australian, Shannon Whale knows how to deal with fresh challenges. Since starting her football career at Pinjarra Tigers, Whale has played for four local clubs, captaining two of them, and winning two flags in the process. Her story, which includes making the cross-country trek to Victoria in search of improvement – is one of a teenager who has adapted to change. Now, in her top-age year, Whale is hoping all her hard work can pay off with a spot on an AFL Women’s list.

“I started my football down in Pinjarra Tigers,” Whale said. “I ended up being captain for it as well. “We won the premiership, and then the next year I was asked to join Peel Thunderbirds where I played there for that year. “Then we got to the premiership and won that.”

Determined to improve further, the West Australian teenager found an opportunity. It would mean a lot of travel and dedication, but it was an opportunity that was too good to pass up. 

“Mum found a site called Rookie Me and went and I did a bit of training with Rookie Me,” she said. “They moved to Melbourne … and I went there four times a year and then after Peel Thunderbirds, I moved to East Perth just to get away from it a bit. “I played half a year there and then due to family stuff I had to move to South Fremantle which was closer to home, less of a travel. “The next year I went to Rookie Me again, got more training, a lot more. “It helped so much, Robbie Campbell and ‘Goughy’ (Lachlan Gough) and all of them, they’re just so good. “It’s a great thing; Rookie Me is so good.”

Whale is still at South Fremantle this year, but is now captain of the side. She earned a place in the West Australian team for the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships, playing an impressive opening game before fracturing a small part in her right wrist early in the second match, ending her carnival. Whale said it was a great experience to play against the most talented players in the country, and enjoyed tackling Vic Metro on Metricon Stadium.

“It was a bit harder because they were a lot taller than us,” she said. “But it was good to compete in something that was so hard. “They put up a good fight, obviously we lost, but not by much (eight points). “It was good to be able to be in it, knowing what the next step is going to be, how hard it’s going to be, but it’s just working towards it and having fun while you do it.”

Whale said the enjoyment she gained out of playing football was something special and always looked forward to going to training.

“It’s just fun,” she said. “Doing something you love every weekend and being able to take it further into a career. “It’s just enjoyable, every part of it’s enjoyable. “I actually love going to training because your friends are there as well and you’re all doing something you love and it’s great.”

The full pathway for young girls to transition into a national competition is something that Whale is glad has arrived and has her even more determined to play at the highest level.

“I’m actually quite happy that it’s come up and it’s still rising because it’s something that I can work towards and hopefully I’ll get in one day,” she said. “It’s just a good thing for all the young girls to start, knowing that there’s something in the end of their career for them to do.”

According to Whale, her coaches have been impressed with her ability to read the play, and position herself in marking situations. She was able to use these strengths when playing in defence at the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships. But it also gave her a new improvement to focus on.

“I want to get more into it,” Whale said. “At the moment I’m playing backline so I don’t really get much touch of the ball unless it’s down there a lot. “But I’m always working towards trying to keep my player out of it.”

As for her ultimate goal?

“Obviously I want to get drafted into a team, if that doesn’t work then well I want to do something with coaching,” Whale said. “Then help everyone out, all the little kids out.”

Whale returned to South Fremantle in their preliminary final extra time loss to East Fremantle, managing to play the one game since her injury before the end of the season.

Juggling multiple sports no problem for passionate Rachel Dunstan

SOUTH Australia Under 18 representative, Rachel Dunstan has always played netball and basketball. After seeing an online registration link for the Under 18 South Australian football side last year, she thought she would add another sport to her belt. Little did she know that she would discover a love for the sport and face a difficult decision to give away her other sports in pursuit of an AFLW contract.

“I just love lots of different sports,” Dunstan said. “It was hard to quit one so I always just tried to play as much as I could. “Footy was never a thing that I really looked into much. “But then in SA, because they didn’t have many teams or anything, they put out a registration form and it got cut from there.”

Dunstan was fortunate enough to make the final cut for the state side last year in her first ever year of football. Now that she has backed up her performance this year with a spot in the South Australian and Central Allies outfits, the 18 year-old admits that she has found a new belief in herself to progress further with football.

“I’ve got to start thinking about taking it further,” Dunstan said. “I’m looking to get drafted. “This year is obviously my top-age year but I feel like I’ve come in so late so I’ve got so much more to learn. “It would be a bonus if I got drafted this year but I think with a good pre-season behind me, learning more and sticking to one position, I’ll be ready to go for next season.”

But at the moment, Dunstan is content with balancing football, netball and basketball due to her passion for the sports.

“Everyone told me I’m crazy to do both this year with everything going on but I live in a really small community town and just know everyone, my whole family’s there so I just can’t give away that whole day on a Saturday because the boys footy and girls netball are at the same venue every week,” Dunstan said. “I absolutely love it, I just couldn’t give up playing netball yet even though I’m trying to balance them both.”

In the middle of this trifecta of sports is her Year 12 studies. Dunstan admits she doesn’t have much time on her plate, as she describes a typical week.

“So normally a week would be four trainings a week and that’s netball, basketball and footy,” she said. “Then there’s games on a weekend, normally state trainings would be on a Sunday morning then I play netball on Saturdays. “Then club footy is either a Friday night or a Sunday. “I don’t have much time and I really have to make sure I get it (homework) done at school.”

At the moment, Dunstan is busy studying the game of Australian Rules, admitting that she has an analytical side, which she has had since childhood.  

“I just love it (footy) so I would watch most games, all the boys every weekend, and I’m pretty analytic so I know exactly what’s going on,” she said. “ I’m good at just reading the play and identifying things in the game even though I probably couldn’t do it in the game.”

To improve her craft in the game, Dunstan is playing her first year of local football for the South Australian Women’s Football League (SAWFL) Under 18 side, Morphettville Park. Even though it was hard to land at a club, the 18 year-old is glad that she did, as it has given her an opportunity to develop her skills.

“This year was my first SANFL Women’s,” she said. “My zone didn’t have one (a team) so the state talent managers really had to get me at a different club and that was about an hour and a half away from where I live. “It was two trainings a week. “It wasn’t really close but yeah I’m loving playing club this year. “It’s good to just practice things there as well.”

Dunstan says her football skills have been progressing since she was a child, as she explains her love for the local club football environment.

“I’ve just always grown up around a footy at the local footy club and kicking it around,” the Central Allies representative said. “I obviously kicked the footy with all the A Grade boys when I was younger so that just made me love it. “I played state last year and this is my first proper year at a local club so yeah it’s been good but lots of improvement to go.”

As well as appearing for South Australia and the Central Allies in the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships, Dunstan has been named in the best for Morphettville Park’s Under 18 side five times in eight games.

Lifelong footballer Szigeti edges closer to AFLW dream

WHEN Lauren Szigeti ran out on a football field for the first time, there was no elite pathway for women in Australian Rules. Unlike many contemporaries, the fact there was no national competition did not douse her desire to get the best out of herself. In fact, she grabbed every opportunity she could, playing all through her teenage years and now, in her top-age season, won a club best and fairest and earned state representation – a fitting honour for someone who never stopped believing.

“I started back in Auskick when I was probably about five or six and then just got into that through my brother playing footy and my dad as well,” Szigeti said. “Then I played juniors with the boys until I was 13 or 14 and then went to girls footy and then went from there.”

Szigeti had dipped into a number of different sports in her young life, but believed the close bond you share with your teammates in an Aussie Rules team trumps anything else.

“I just love the culture,” Szigeti said. “I’ve played basketball and tennis, I’ve played a lot of that when I was younger, but I always loved footy the most. “Just the environment, friendships that you make and I feel like you make a real special connection with the girls in your team and I’ve loved that.”

The Eastern Ranges defender enjoys the challenges of playing at half-back, because she gets to balance between “attacking a bit” and defending. Szigeti said her skills and game-related attributes were among her strengths, having played for all her life, while her aerobic fitness was something she was keen to build. She ensured she worked closely with those Ranges girls who crossed from other codes to help improve each other.

“I guess I sort of go to those girls because they’re always the real athletic ones,” Szigeti said. “So I go to them for that side of things, but they come to me to be able to read the game and things like that. “I do have that experience, so I enjoy helping in that way.”

Szigeti said the depth of talent at not only TAC Cup Girls level, but across the entire region was noticeable, even in the short time she had been involved in the eastern region programs.

“I can’t put into words how much I reckon it’s lifted, even since last year,” Szigeti said. “It’s just crazy, the overall standard has just raised heaps. “Even just the under 15s interleague before. “Just thinking back when I was 15, playing interleague. “Their level is just so much higher than what we were, it’s just awesome.”

It is no surprise the talented Ranges leader had a big top-age year, earning selection for Vic Metro and playing against some of the nation’s top players on the Gold Coast, as well as taking out the Eastern Ranges best and fairest award.

“It (getting selected for Vic Metro) was incredible,” Szigeti said. “You kind of have it in the back of your head throughout the season, it was such a relief to finally get that letter. “To not always have that lingering, it was awesome.”

Szigeti said she was disappointed when the TAC Cup Girls season came to an end after everything the team had gone through together week-in, week-out.

“(I) loved it,” she said. “Absolutely loved it. “I’m so sad that it’s done. “I always loved coming to training every week, playing the games. “We’ve got a real good group of girls, we made all good connections.”

Since finishing up at Eastern, Szigeti has been working hard with Darebin Falcons in the Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s, having already played a handful of games this season.

“I know a few girls there and obviously it’s a real successful club with a really good culture,” Szigeti said.

She almost had the opportunity to play against Ranges’ teammates Emerson Woods and Sarah Kendall when the Falcons clashed with Hawthorn, but just missed out as an emergency. Szigeti said prior to the season it would be an interesting challenge to face-off against some of her close friends.

“It would be pretty funny,” she said. “We talked about it a couple of times how we might end up coming up against each other. “It would be pretty weird, after becoming so close here, but would be good fun.”

Like most top-age TAC Cup Girls, Szigeti has had to find the balance between her sport and studies. She said she has used football as a way of taking a mental break from the book work.

“I’m in Year 12 so I’ve got school and then training here and now for VFL and then going to the gym and stuff, usually I’ve got something on everyday,” Szigeti said. “It’s just finding that balance between sport and school. But I kind of use sport as a release from school but I enjoy having a lot of things on, because it gets you to smash out your work quickly.”

For Szigeti, playing AFL was a dream when it “didn’t even exist” so it was always her “number one long-term goal”. She said she cannot believe how much women’s football has grown in recent years and how close she could be to her dream, should it come true.

“It’s crazy,” she said. “It’s crazy how far it’s come. “Knowing how it actually is a real thing that could happen in the next six months. “It’s really exciting, a bit scary, but it’s exciting.”

Ankle injury a blessing in disguise for Postlethwaite

DEVASTATION hit Queensland representative, Lily Postlethwaite last year when an ankle injury sidelined her from playing in her maiden AFL Women’s Under 18s tournament.

But being the positive person that she is, Postlethwaite used the injury as an opportunity to watch on and learn from the best young footballers in the country.

“I didn’t think I was really going to make Queensland last year so I was kind of surprised when Starce (Craig Starcevich, Brisbane AFLW coach and Queensland Under 18 Girls coach) picked me for that. “When I had my ankle (injury), I was just watching everything and seeing what the girls do. “We go from school girls straight into 18s. “It’s a big step-up in terms of professionalism and stuff.”

But coming into this year, the 17 year-old feels like this experience has put her ahead, as she has been able to turn the watching into doing. The star midfielder was named Queensland’s best-on-ground in all three of its games on the Gold Coast, showing her capability to tear a game apart. Perhaps the most memorable game was against Vic Metro, where her side recorded its first win of the tournament against a fancied opponent.

“It was amazing (winning),” Postlethwaite said. “First win in a Queensland jumper for myself and a fair few of the other girls. “We just came together and it was a great win. “Altogether we played really well so I was out there playing my role but altogether we did the team job.”

Postlethwaite has not been playing football for long, but has enjoyed a rapid rise to the top, as she is currently a member of the AFL Women’s Academy and the Brisbane Lions Academy. But before all this, the Queenslander used football as a means of bonding with her father.

“I didn’t start (football) that long ago,” Postlethwaite said. “I think this is my fourth club season. “I used to train with my dad at the masters club [a football club for people over 35 years old] to play just for a muck around. “Then they had a girls team there and dad’s like you should give it a go so I was like yeah why not. “From there, I didn’t look back.”

Fast forward to 2018 and the 17 year-old is enjoying being a member of two prestigious Australian Rules academies.

“That’s great, that’s been really good,” she said about the Brisbane Lions Academy. “Also we have the high performance academy for that as well on a Tuesday and sometimes a Thursday so that really helps with gym and stuff.”

The AFL Women’s Academy in particular has been a highlight for Postlethwaite, who has enjoyed developing her skills alongside the best Under-18 footballers in the country.

“That’s the best thing I’ve ever done, I love that,” she said. “All the girls from there and coming out here and playing against them has been a great experience. “Those Darwin and Melbourne trips, I’ll never forget them.”

Before she played football, Postlethwaite used to play Oztag, but gave up the sport due to its limited future options.

“I played Oztag for a fair few years for Queensland and stuff like that,” she said. “It was alright but it kind of wasn’t the sport to be in. “There wasn’t really any future for it. “I kind of wanted to change it up a bit.”

Since Postlethwaite has swapped the tag for the Sherrin, she has been able to witness the growth of female football in Australia, and now has her sights set on AFL Women’s.

“Once the AFLW opened up, watching all those girls perform well at that level, it’s something we can all aspire to for the future I guess,” she said. “It just gives us something to look forward to, we can give it our all now that we have something to aim for. “I’m just focusing on every step at the moment and working hard to get there. “Anything can happen, there’s still a long way to go.”

Keeping Tabs: Standout performers from Round 21

WITH the race to the Rising Star award reaching the home stretch, the Keeping Tabs’ favourites continue to make their appearances. At the beginning of the year, I would have predicted Stephenson easily, however there’s still plenty of standouts who want their name in this conversation.                   

Jaidyn Stephenson

Spreading his class throughout the ground against a resilient Brisbane Lions, Stephenson returned to his Rising Star form. Pivotal in their victory, Magpie’s debutante finished with 19 kicks, six handballs, eight marks and 524 metres gained. This year, Stephenson proved himself up forward with countless goals to show for it. He showed his versatility last weekend, proving himself dominant by foot through the midfield and going forward. He closed out the game against the Lions with five inside 50s, one rebound 50, 10 score involvements, two one percenters and most impressively, two goals. It seems in the conversation of Rayner v Stephenson, it’s safe to say the Magpie won this round.

James Worpel

All eyes were on the young Hawk this weekend in yet another close finish against the Cats. Worpel came out with wings fully stretched, laying eight tackles (two inside 50s) and 17 pressure acts. When facing Geelong skipper Joel Selwood, in one of the game’s desperate moments, Worpel snatched the pill off the deck, spinning out of danger and assisting the ball forward for an important goal. The simple, yet courageous act may have saved the game. For the day he had 12 kicks, 11 handballs and five marks. His work was solid around the stoppages, with four clearances, four inside 50s and two rebounds. This week’s Rising Star nominee loved attacking the football and seems to be developing well under the great, Alastair Clarkson. The youngster could see himself in a premiership side this year if Hawks continue their strong form.

Jack Higgins

Richmond’s favourite personality had yet another stellar performance. His consistency has been his most impressive feat this year, flowing well with the chaotic Tigers and injecting some of his own unfamiliar flavour. Higgins collected most of his 16 disposals across the wings, at an 81 per cent efficiency with six contested possessions last weekend. The most impressive of his stats came from his two goal assists, seven score involvements and two contested marks. The unselfish footballer impacts the scoreboard through clever and timely passing. Despite not kicking a big number this year, Higgins doesn’t sit on his hands in the forward line, creating goals through great instincts and great agility. Furthermore, he had 18 pressure acts and a clearance to show for his day.

Ed Richards

Ed ‘Red’ Richards has quickly become a famous name for Bulldog supporters. This debutante stood up in the back half of this season, adding plenty of class up forward at times, and sensational run out of the backline when needed. The latter was prominent in this week’s match. Richards had 17 possessions at 77 per cent disposal efficiency, cleaning up the footy comprehensively in the Bulldogs’ defensive half. He had an impressive run along the wing, bringing the ball inside 50 with a few bounces, creating a goal. For the day, he had two inside 50s, one rebound, 14 pressure acts, four intercept possessions and two marks. It is outstanding how much of the spotlight the debutantes have stolen this year, and Richards is definitely a fan favourite.

Tim Kelly

Though not at his usual form, Kelly still performed well enough to have his spot on this list. He had 11 kicks and six handballs with a 65 per cent disposal efficiency. His most impressive feat came from his 385 metres gained and five one percenters. It’s fair to say if this was a Tim Kelly best performance list, this one wouldn’t make it, but Kelly still had his fair share of an impact. His accuracy in front of goal was dismal at 33 percent, kicking one out of three. Though like usual his stats were well spread, finishing with four clearances, four inside 50s, two tackles and 13 pressure acts. Hopefully we can see Geelong’s heavy hitter lift this week and play some of the footy we saw against the Tigers.

Paddy Dow

Dow is slowly establishing his trademark with his strong running across the wing. First using it to score a Goal of the Week nomination, Dow used his second run to setup a teammate and secure an easier score. Finding his zone in recent times, it seems the nerves of elite football are things of the past. Carlton’s young ball carrier secured 10 kicks and five handballs at a 60 percent disposal efficiency and nine contested possessions. His impact was spread across forward and back, with seven score involvements and 11 pressure acts. He proved strong in the clearance yet again, securing four, and showed his dominance delivering the ball with five inside 50s. With the way these last few weeks are going, I can see 2019 being the year of Dow, and I sure can’t wait to see it.

Tom McCartin

Though only having 10 possessions, McCartin managed to make them all count at a 100 per cent disposal efficiency. He split his disposals perfectly with five contested and five uncontested possessions, as well as spreading them 50-50 across the defensive and forward halves. He also collected six score involvements, one goal assist and a goal for himself. He took an impressive six marks (two contested), laid three tackles, had four inside 50s and four one percenters. McCartin is holding up as a reliable footballer, making his possessions count and not getting caught with the footy. He has adapted well to Sydney’s neat brand of football and will bring in the next generation of champions quite nicely.

Aiden Bonar

The former Dandenong Stingrays forward was at his exciting best, booting 2.2 in the GIANTS’ win over Adelaide in what was a season-defining game. Bonar had just the nine touches, but had five marks (one contested and three inside 50), four tackles and an inside 50. Most importantly, he laid two of his four tackles inside 50, providing that vital forward pressure. He has exciting speed and X-factor in the forward half and will be one that continues to develop at a rapid rate which a huge ceiling.

Fantastic Five: Memorable moments from the weekend

TALENTED teenagers, thrilling wins and unforgettable moments were the highlights from the weekend in a fantastic round of football.

Next year’s draft crop shines

While most of the AFL Academy Level One members sat out the games at Ikon Park on Sunday, spectators got a glimpse into the talent of the 2019 National Draft crop when Vic Country and Vic Metro took on Queensland and New South Wales/Australian Capital Territory (NSW/ACT). Both the Victorian sides triumphed, but the likes of Thomas Green (NSW/ACT) and Ashton Crossley (Queensland) impressed for the Division Two sides. The depth of Victorian talent was on show, with Flynn Perez (Bendigo Pioneers), Mitch Martin (GWV Rebels), Riley Baldi (Gippsland Power), Mitch Mellis (Eastern Ranges), Josh D’Intinosante (Northern Knights) and Brodie Newman (Calder Cannons) some of the top performers.

Worpedo’s pick-up

If you have not seen the one-on-one contest between James Worpel and Joel Selwood, it is one not to be missed. At half-forward, both bulls stormed towards the ball, with the young talent bouncing off his more experienced opponent and giving the ball off to Jack Gunston, who finished with a goal. His performance on the weekend in Hawthorn’s close win over the Cats earned the Geelong Falcons premiership co-captain a Rising Star nomination, with Worpel picking up 23 disposals, five marks, four clearances and laying eight tackles.

Williamstown’s thrilling win

The Seagulls and Tigers have not had the greatest of seasons this year in the Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s competition, but the sides played out a thrilling contest on the weekend, with Williamstown triumphing by the smallest of margins. Western Jets’ tall Sharnie Whiting kicked what would be the winning goal late in the game to deliver the Seagulls a huge victory in context, and while neither side will play finals, it will give them plenty of confidence going into the final fortnight of the season.

Adelaide University books grand final berth

Heading away to face the minor premiers, Morphettville Park was always going to be a challenge. The second placed Adelaide University knew the going would be tough, and it took all four quarters to get the job done, recording a two-point win. The victory saw The Blacks move into the grand final, while the Roos will have to win their preliminary final to earn a rematch. Christies Beach came to an end at the hands of Salisbury, with the latter now with an opportunity to move through to the decider if they can upset Morphettville Park.

VFLW a perfect development ground for talented teens

It was impressive to see so many potential top picks running around in the VFLW on the weekend, with Madison Prespakis (Melbourne Uni), Nina Morrison and Olivia Purcell (Geelong), Emerson Woods (Hawthorn), Jordyn Allen (Casey Demons) and Sophie Van De Heuvel (Williamstown) among a plethora of potential AFL Women’s stars next season playing their trade at state level. With some likely to play finals, it will be great to see them on the big stage in the final month of the season.

Humble O’Connor learns a lot from her football opportunities

NORTHERN Knights ruck, Neve O’Connor did not think she would be a part of the TAC Cup Girls program. Nor did she think she would be selected for Vic Metro.

The 18 year-old ticked both those boxes this year and is enjoying learning about Australian Rules through these opportunities. Before she played at the Knights, O’Connor was selected to play for the Calder Cannons, which kick-started her positive football experience.

“I first started at Calder Cannons when I was a youth before there was TAC,” she said. “I didn’t think that would happen (getting selected for Calder). “It was really good and definitely a great experience, and playing two seasons at the Knights has been amazing for my development and it’s just such a good culture. “I’ve learnt so much about my footy.”

O’Connor has continued to learn about her own game at the Northern Knights, but has also benefited from learning about her teammates’ style of football. Despite being one of the older players at the club, the 18 year-old says she has learned just as much off the younger players at the Knights and sees a bright future ahead for them.

“A few times at training, they’d (younger players) show me up and I would just kind of sit back and say ‘woah’,” O’Connor admitted. “Especially Ellie McKenzie, I wonder what she’ll be like in a couple of years. “I just think it was really great to see that we had depth for the future, I can’t wait to see where they go.”

Combining older and younger talent has been very beneficial for the Knights, who reached the maiden TAC Cup Girls Grand Final. Although they fell short to the Geelong Falcons, O’Connor says she is extremely proud of the achievement of getting to the big stage.

“To be in the Grand Final was phenomenal and to lose by a pretty small amount was pretty annoying,” she said. “But I’m still so proud of the fact that we had such a young team and we went really well against a developing natural team like Geelong.”

O’Connor is not surprised that her side made the Grand Final, as she sensed good things from her teammates just from training with them.

“I knew from the start that we had a really good team,” she said. “When the girls trained, we all bonded really quickly and worked pretty well together.”

Although she is focused on football now, O’Connor’s childhood consisted of many sports. As a junior, she participated in basketball, dancing, cricket and also trampolining. But when she stumbled across football, it was hard for her to look back, as she enjoyed the sport immediately.

“I first started (playing football) when I was 14,” the 18 year-old said. “I played basketball and a mix of other sports. “Then I played footy in PE (Physical Education) for two weeks. “My coach was starting a girls team and he sent me down there.”

Little did she know that four years later, she would be selected to represent her state. O’Connor met the opportunity with emotion, and was very grateful to have received the coveted invite to play for Vic Metro.

“It was such a relief, this season especially, because there were a lot of excellent rucks in the competition,” she said. “When I got the letter, I did cry a little. “I was so relieved to just get it. “I teared up, I couldn’t help it.”

Currently in Year 12, O’Connor’s career path is different to some other Under 18 players, but she shares the same focus with them.

“I think I’ll be taking a gap year to get out of school and try something new,” she said. “I’ll definitely be pursuing footy and see how I go. “Next year would be great but I’ll take each week as it comes and that sort of thing.”

Passionate Hamilton keeps up with “crazy” fast pathway to the top

FROM the freezing mornings out on icy grounds in Canberra, Alexia Hamilton has always had a passion for Australian Rules football. The pathway was not there at first, but when it came about, she grabbed it with both hands and has not let go.

“As a young girl I always admired playing AFL, but there was never really an opportunity for me to play,” Hamilton said. “So I played a couple of sports, soccer, basketball, I come from a Judo background as well, so bit of martial arts as well. “Then my brother, he was playing at the time – he still does – and I was down at a local training, and the coach came up to me and said ‘do you want to have a kick?’ and I was like ‘I’d love to have a kick’ and from there it’s just been achievements, goals and just been a really great step in the future.”

Hamilton said the game had come along in leaps and bounds and it was hard to believe just how much it had grown in her years in the sport.

“It’s crazy,” she said. This game was so fast and so evolving especially with AFLW now, but it’s been hard to keep track, and with it its been very fast and a very quick journey but it’s been totally worth it so far.”

For Hamilton, like so many other aspiring female footballers, having the pathway gives those who love the game, an “end-goal” to strive towards in the future.

“Coming from the bottom where there was no pathway at all, even for Youth Girls, and now the pathway is almost finalised, it’s an incredible feeling just to have that end-goal, and when you get there it will just be amazing. It’s a dream for any footballer, really,” Hamilton said. “I just love the competition, the fun, the teammates, the family, everything comes out of this place. “Just the entire game you can form so many more bonds, you can learn so much stuff and it’s just a complete enjoyment.”

Hamilton travels about 40 minutes to train for the Queanbeyan Tigers in the AFL Canberra competition, something she admits “isn’t too bad” considering the lengths of which other girls travel. She describes herself as “pretty lucky” to have found such a great club. Her development there and with AFL NSW/ACT has helped her adapt to the higher standard of play at the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships, representing the Eastern Allies.

“It’s a great opportunity certainly,” Hamilton said, of the chance to represent Eastern Allies. “To play with Alyce Parker, and the (Chloe and LibbyHaines‘s and a couple of the girls from Tassie, and obviously our girls from NSW/ACT, they’re just fantastic to play with. “It’s a great opportunity and the journey has been good so far with them.”

The versatile utility said it was tough to get to know some of the Eastern Allies players that they had never met before, less than 48 hours before they would run out on the field together.

“We all met on the Saturday night so having to all meet, (learn) names and then find out how the individuals play was a really big challenge,” Hamilton said. “It was a great opportunity for all of our girls to try and bond in a really tight, quick situation and then expected to play the next couple of days, so it was a great opportunity with the girls. “We all bonded really well and we had a fantastic time over the last couple of days.”

Hamilton describes herself as an aggressive player who enjoys body contact and laying strong tackles to win clean possession of the football. Her goal this season was to ensure her work rate remained high, and her discipline to keep minding her opponent, remained on track.

Like a number of Under-18 talents, Hamilton was able to represent the Southern Giants in the Winter Series, something she will never forget.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” Hamilton said. “Just getting to play alongside and against some amazing AFLW players has been a real big opportunity for me, especially as a young player. “So it’s been an amazing journey.”

The 17 year-old said her pathway to the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships, has been thanks to the development along the way, believing her skills were the biggest beneficiary of the AFL NSW/ACT program.

“My skills have improved out of sight,” Hamilton said. “I think my ability to read the play has been a lot better and my knowledge of the game. “Also probably my fitness has improved as well, I’ve been able to keep up with these ones (Eastern Allies girls) so it’s been fantastic.”

Outside of football, Hamilton enjoys Judo and Oztag in Canberra, but is yet to decide on a non-football career.

“At the moment I’m still at school,” Hamilton said. “So I’m just trying to get through the year, and then hopefully look at career options and hopefully the AFLW is one of those options.”

Hamilton said she was able to communicate well with her school and football clubs to ensure the right balance was met in her most important year.

“My school at the moment is very understanding of my commitments outside of my school opportunities,” she said. “So I’m currently training four or five days a week for just solely football and then obviously extra-curricular activities like gym and fitness activities. “It’s been a pretty full-on workload, but definitely worth it in the end.”

Her most fond memory is that of her first game, which sticks with her throughout her career, while her biggest inspiration is Sydney Swans talent, Isaac Heeney.

“I was in the freezing cold, my long socks and it was my first hit-out and it was a fantastic memory I’ll always remember,” she said. “He’s (Heeney) one that’s come through the program himself, being through the Rams himself. “Seeing him come out of it and being successful is a really good goal and you know it’s achievable. “Also you’ve got icons in the women’s everywhere – Daisy Pearce and Tayla Harris. “They’re all big names that I want to be like one day.”

Now Hamilton’s sights are firmly focused on joining the likes of Pearce and Harris in the AFL Women’s competition.

“I would love to be apart of that (draft) campaign,” Hamilton said. “Hopefully I’ll go through school and everything will be sweet and I’ll achieve my goals in that area and then besides that, keep going with local footy and hopefully win the championship or just keep improving with that ability.”

Father’s influence inspired Jemma Owen’s love for Aussie Rules

BEING the daughter of a man that has played and coached over 500 games in Melbourne’s south east region is no easy feat to live up to.

Throw in an uncle who is a former Victorian Football Association (VFA) player for Oakleigh, and you have one talented football family. But perhaps the most talented of them all is Sandringham Dragons captain, Jemma Owen.

Owen’s name became well-known when she booted a bag of 16 goals for her local team, Highett, and since that moment, has grown in leaps and bounds. The 18 year-old credits her improvement to the dedication of her late father, Kevin.

“So I got into footy through my dad,” Owen said. “My dad coached and played over 500 games. “Just going down to the ground with him and watching the boys play, I was like that’s what I want to do when I grow up, I want to play footy.”

Owen first picked up a football in a competitive environment at Auskick, where many TAC Cup Girls players discovered their love for the game. After playing with the boys for many years, the Sandringham skipper grasped the rising opportunities for females at the time, and reflected on how the pathway has grown over the years.

“Definitely coming through the ranks and going through Auskick and everything to playing with the boys, they’re kind of like oh there’s a girl!,” Owen said. “Now seeing that there’s so many girls playing and having the opportunity to come through is really great.”

Before she started to take her opportunities in football, Owen did athletics for 11 years. She competed in discus and loved playing that sport, as well as many other sports, but football was always in the back of her mind.

“I wanted to do every sport under the sun,” Owen said. “Athletics was always there and I wasn’t bad at it, my thing was discus. “Obviously as I got older, the body started to get bigger and I was still small, and so I couldn’t compete at that level so definitely footy was the big thing for me.”

This year, Owen has been able to grasp an opportunity that not many players get to have. After four years playing in Dragons colours, she led the side in 2018 and was thrilled to do so.

“I’m very honoured to be picked as captain,” Owen said. “I’ve been playing with Sandringham for four years and finally getting the chance to captain them and playing under awesome captains is definitely a proud moment for me and definitely one I’ll remember.”

Another memorable moment for Owen came this year when she was selected in Vic Metro’s AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships squad. Owen featured in Metro’s match against Vic Country at GMHBA Stadium and was just glad to be selected in the first place.

“It’s definitely a massive honour (being selected),” the Dragons captain said. “I’ve probably worked for four years to have this opportunity and to be selected to play. “It’s an amazing opportunity and something I’ve wished for for a long time.”

The hard work has paid off as Owen is now a member of the Southern Saints’ Victorian Football League (VFL) Women’s team. The 18 year-old has played six games for the Saints this season and has thoroughly enjoyed the transition to VFLW.

“It’s been an awesome opportunity,” Owen said. “The girls down there have been really great. “They’re really supportive of the TAC girls coming down. “It’s been an awesome opportunity to play at that elite level.”