“I DECIDED I wasn’t really cut out for it or didn’t really like it too much.”
It is hard to believe that this is was what 10-year-old Bella Lewis thought when she played a one-off game with the boys back in Sydney. Fast forward eight years and the Western Australia State Academy and National Women’s Academy talent could not have a more different opinion. The Claremont midfielder is one of her state’s brightest AFL Women’s Draft prospects, and she credits that to her move to the western seaboard in her early teenage years.
“It was definitely a change,” Lewis said. “I think it was at a point in my life going from primary school to high school was a big change in friends groups and pressure like that so it was definitely a big change. “I think it was definitely for the better, I don’t think I’d probably be playing footy if I hadn’t moved.”
It was not just the access to playing the game, but also the feeling amongst her peers. Lewis admitted she went from an area where very few talked about let along played Australian rules, to a school that cannot get enough of the oblong ball game.
“I think nowadays with footy every time you go to school, someone’s talking about the game,” Lewis said. “Whereas in Sydney it was more, it wasn’t really talked about thing. “I guess even five or six years ago, female footy there wasn’t an AFLW, there wasn’t a competition. “Definitely now in WA and the difference in Sydney is definitely a big difference.”
While Lewis had the access to play Australian rules football again, it was not until the last couple of years that the tough speedster was looking anything beyond playing with her friends and enjoying the social aspect of the game.
“When I was playing 15s and I was playing 16s, footy was obviously a big part of my life but it wasn’t a main thing that I would obviously think about,” Lewis said. “It was definitely when I made 18s and National Academy, it was kind of becoming more of a real thing. “I thought ‘oh okay, maybe I can make something of this’. “It was for me all the way through just about playing the best footy that I can play and still enjoying it as well.”
Her determination to push herself to her limits and try and get to the elite levels of competition was helped along by seeing West Australian teammates step up to the next level after playing alongside them at the AFL Women’s Under-18 Championships.
“I think it’s definitely surreal seeing a lot of those players,” Lewis said. “Even some of the players who were drafted last year, you know I knew some of those girls like Mikayla Bowen, and players like that. “That you know and play with them and you see them play at that level, and that inspires you and encourages you to play at a higher level, and playing in a state that has such a high standard of footy I think i would rather play, it would make you a better player and gives you better habits and makes you become the best player that you could.”
It was that kind of competition – the championships – that Lewis thrived on, and she certainly did not look overawed, being the only other played with Bowen to pick up at least 11 disposals in each of the three matches. From that week on the Gold Coast, Lewis took plenty of confidence from her performances to take back to West Australian Football League (WAFL) Women’s League matches.
“I took that trip, went into it as this is a learning experience, if I want to keep playing the game and progressing to the higher levels, this is definitely the kind of competition I need to be familiar with,” Lewis said. “It was just very surreal to play on a stadium like that just to get that opportunity. It’s definitely something you never take for granted.
“Going from last year into this year, the one thing in my game that has lifted is definitely my confidence,” Lewis said. “Last year I was going ‘wow these girls are a lot older, they’re bigger, they’re better’. “I think consistency is something that I’d like to have in my game, just always trying to be consistent is something that’s definitely a powerful attribute so I think you go into the games nervous. “Once you’re out there you play that brand of footy and showcase your skills, but going into this year it’s definitely given me a lot more confidence.”
Lewis might only stand at 163cm, but the 17-year-old packs plenty of punch, with her running power, acceleration and pressure among her best attributes – even if as she concedes, it can sometimes work against her.
“I love the physicality of the game, I’ll go into any contest,” she said. “Sometimes I probably should be a bit more careful, but tackling is just a good way to let it out on the field as well.”
For someone who loves tackling, it is no surprise to see who her inspiration at AFL Women’s level is, the tackling machine that is Kiara Bowers. Though not just because of her on-field traits.
“I think the one thing in her game as well is just resilience,” Lewis said. “Coming back from multiple injuries and that’s a big thing that I like to have in my game, not so much injuries but going really physical, bouncing straight back up. “That’s just something I see similar there. “She’s always been one that I’ve watched and looked up to.”
For Lewis, she is ironing out her kicking and decision making at full speed. While she can win the ball and burst away with it, she is keen to lower the eyes and pick out teammates down the field, or just make the best possible decisions with ball-in-hand.
“I think my strength is my running, I’m able to use more handballs or be a bit less selfish and use handballs and stuff like that, but I really want to start being powerful by foot and I think that if I’m able to do that, I will improve quite a bit and that as well will give me a lot of confidence, being able to kick,” she said.
Her willingness to take the game on was exemplified in Claremont’s heartbreaking one-point loss to East Fremantle. In her first game back since January, Lewis showed some eye-catching bursts at half-forward, and while she was caught on a couple of occasions, admitted she did not mind it, and helped her adjust to the level again.
“I don’t think I’ve broken through the barrier of the level of footy I can play yet, but of course that just comes with being a bit rusty, but I think in the first half I was thinking you always take people on, you’ve got to get more comfortable with doing that again,” Lewis said. “Being caught, I didn’t mind being caught because that gave me some realism, okay well what do you need to do better next time? Better decision making. “So in the second half I definitely I was like ‘okay so how do I use that to help my teammates and make the best decisions quickly in the moment and I think that I definitely got better as the game went on.”
She definitely achieved that with a perfectly weighted pass in the third term to the goalsquare for teammate Mhicca Carter to run onto and kick the Tigers’ first goal of the game and give them some life to roar back into the contest. But it was not just her offensive ability on show, but her defensive work as well. In on instant, she was opposed to Collingwood AFL Women’s player Ruby Schleicher, and while Schleicher fended her off and assumed she had done enough, Lewis lunged back, corralling her much bigger opponent and bringing her to ground.
“I think definitely going up against someone like Ruby Schleicher, she’s very quality opposition, just trying to corral them instead of going full for the tackle. “Obviously I know her strengths, you’ve just got to understand how you’ll do better in that situation and for me that kind of just giving it my all but making sure I don’t go all in. “She’s got probably the better footy IQ and how to go around someone like me, but just not giving up that second effort I guess.”
From a team perspective, looking ahead to Claremont’s next game up against winless South Fremantle, Lewis said that the team just needed to make better decisions as a whole, and adapt to the conditions quicker in order to avoid the opposition getting off to a fast start.
“I think we’ve improved in our team since last year to do with structures and the way that we want to play,” she said. “I just think that especially with the wet weather conditions, we were a bit thrown off, we couldn’t play perfect footy. “We couldn’t give off too many handballs… I think as the second half was a lot better from us, the third quarter. “We just need to make a better decision in the moment even if that’s just picking the ball off the ground and kicking it to advantage rather than trying to make it look pretty. “I think that if we get that down, we’ll definitely play the way that we want to play and be successful.”
This week Lewis has a different game to approach, with the WA Academy hosting an intraclub match tonight. While some might prepare differently against younger opponents than a regular League match, Lewis said she would approach the game the same way given the quality running around.
With Western Australia’s best draft hopes taking to the field tonight, Lewis knew there were plenty who had the same aspirations as her – to get on an AFL Women’s list – but the Claremont midfielder said she was comfortable remaining in the moment.
“I think going as close to the draft that some people would tend to get a little bit stressed out and who’s watching,” Lewis said. “But I think I just try to play the best footy that I can play and that’s being comfortable around my teammates and try and not think about it too much. “I think some ways that I would go from here is probably going to the gym a bit more. “Looking at the competition, a lot of the AFLW girls who are playing in the WAFLW, that really gives you a standard, they’re big-bodied girls and they’re still agile so I definitely think going to the gym a bit more but not really stressing too much. “You’ve got to think about the present which is something that I like to do quite a bit.”
As for her Tigers season ahead, Lewis is confident the team can reach the pointy end of the finals series if they can maintain their best form when it counted.
“I think that if we start playing the way we want to play, I think we can potentially go pretty far. Our culture’s really good, our structure’s really good, we’re all really committed,” she said. “I think everyone in the team wants to be there and everyone deserves to be there, so I think if we play the way we want to play and not overthink and try and play good looking footy. “I think we should be a team to beat and that would be good.”