Young pups shine on big stage

When Alicia Eva departed Collingwood in the AFLW Trade Period, the Pies leapfrogged the Bulldogs, to hold the number one draft pick. That all changed when former Bulldog, Jaimee Lambert requested a trade to Collingwood. The Bulldogs originally had three first-round picks in the 2017 AFLW National Draft, but had to give Collingwood picks three and nine, along with Lambert. This left the club with two picks in the first round, instead of three. “We would have loved all three draft picks,” Western Bulldogs coach, Paul Groves admitted. “But we only had two and so we had to make a decision, and we were excited that Monique Conti was still there at pick three (of Victorian clubs) and with the way it all panned out.”

Groves coached Bulldogs number one draft pick, Isabel Huntington as a 14-year-old. After being 15 points up in the 2013 National Under 18s Championships final, Groves made the decision to put Huntington behind the ball to sure things up. The 14-year-old and newbie to the Vic Metro team received praise from her coach, who drew upon her performance when deciding who to select at number one. “To be that young and be able to swap into that role and do what she did, is what we came back to when we were selecting our number one pick,” Groves said.

“There were probably five or six players in the ‘pick one’ category. You had Izzy [Huntington] coming back from a knee injury, Chloe Molloy coming off a really good VFLW year and being a year older, and Mon’ Conti hadn’t played much footy and we didn’t know where she was at. If ‘Mon’ had played a whole year of footy she surely would have been our number one pick, and there was [Darcy] Guttridge and [Eden] Zanker in the mix.”

The Dogs are pretty happy with the way their draft played out, and the influence that these players had in round one. Even though Huntington was picked at number one by the Dogs, Groves admits that the expectations of her weren’t demanding. “There probably weren’t the high expectations from me around that, it was more just to compete, because I know Izzy is really agile, and can bounce back and win the footy on the ground, which is probably her main attribute,” Groves said. “She can compete in the air and then compete on the slower defenders on the ground. I think on Sunday we saw flashes of what she can really do. She is going to be able to get off the chain at different points, especially with Katie Brennan there.”

Despite Groves’ relaxed expectations of her, Huntington was sure to have placed high expectations on herself. She was returning to VU Whitten Oval, the ground where she ruptured her ACL the previous year. No doubt this was a daunting process in itself, compounded with being the Dogs’ top draft pick and the pressure surrounding that. “I’m really pleased with how she was able to come into her role, go about business, get a few touches and influence the game, it was really good,” Groves said.

Naturally there would have been nerves about her first shot for goal, but her coach believes that the work she has been doing in that area will help her in good stead throughout the year. “Izzy has been working a lot on her goal kicking and doing a lot of technique work with Development Head Coach, Andrew Shakespeare,” Groves said. “We have been working on her opposite side, so she has the ability to go right, [and] she does tend to go on her left which can catch out a lot of players.”

Reaching her ATAR target with plans to study medicine, Huntington appears to take her dedicated approach to everything she does. “She has ‘future leader’ stamped all over her, and we are in a really strong position where we have some exceptional young leaders in Katie Brennan, Ellie Blackburn, Brooke Lochland, Libby Birch, and Ash [Aisling] Utri,” Groves said. “They all do everything so professionally and Izzy [Huntington] has just walked in from day one as the ultimate professional.”

Conti, the Bulldogs’ third draft pick, also performed well against the Dockers, influencing the game and largely going under the radar. She was the third-highest possession winner, nipping in and out of trouble. “It was pleasing to see” her coach said.

But he did have his doubts about her match preparation, after Conti spent most of the Bulldogs’ pre-season representing the Melbourne Boomers in the WNBL. “I was nervous about ‘Mon’ stepping in having not completed our match training, and even her feedback to me was she felt she could use her running a bit more,” Groves said.

In round one, the Bulldogs played her as a small forward, just to let her find her game, and they rolled her up the wing at different stages to use her run. Groves saw positive signs from her game, and believes that the future for her in Bulldogs colours looks bright. “I think she has grown from her basketball experience, in that she is a tough little player, is courageous and has some real X-factor,” he said. “She is going to be hard to match up against.”

Groves hopes that Huntington, Conti, and all of his players can reap the rewards on-field, after a solid pre-season. “Footy has a funny way of paying you back when you do the right things and I think our players have done the right things this pre-season,” he said. “We now hope to translate that into on-field winning, and winning in the key areas that we are really concentrating on.”

Excitement is certainly building around the game in Brisbane this Sunday, a match between two markedly improved sides.

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