Sports mad McKenzie hoping to hit the ground running

SINCE bursting onto the scene with bags of goals as a bottom-ager in an impressive Northern Knights side, Ellie McKenzie has been touted as one of the leading AFL Women’s Draft prospects of her year.

Back then, in 2018, her performances were also tied to that of her older brother, Tom who spent a year on North Melbourne’s rookie list. The two would often run out on Preston City Oval within the same afternoon, donning the navy, black, and white in the formerly-branded TAC Cup competition. Their love of footy was moulded by a family “crazy about sport”, and McKenzie says her football has always been her “main passion.”

“I grew up being a pretty sporty kid,” McKenzie said. “My family loves sport so I grew up playing not just footy, but (also) cricket, I did some athletics as well, swimming, and gymnastics – just all over the shop really.

“Footy was always the main passion though. My brother Tom went straight to Auskick when he was about five and I looked up to him, I still do obviously. “I went along to Auskick as well, thought I’d give it a go and fell in love with footy from there.”

The potential number one pick started out in the Fitzroy Junior Football Club’s Under 10 boy’s team at just eight years of age, before moving into a girl’s team at 13, and eventually entering the elite talent pathway through Northern’s region. McKenzie says the experience of playing alongside boys has helped develop an edge in her skills, something which sets her apart to this day – along with a “peak” fitness level.

“I think the main thing that sets me apart is my kicking ability,” she said. “Obviously I’ve been playing for a long time and playing with the boys definitely helps that kind of skill. “I’ve been working really hard on my right foot too, I think that’s something that you don’t see much in AFL Men’s, let alone AFLW being able to kick on both feet. “If I keep improving that, I think that’s something that can get to an elite level as well.

“I think this was the first preseason that I’d been at the Knights where I didn’t have an injury. “I had gone through the whole preseason uninjured, I’d been training really hard, and I think that I’d gotten my fitness to a level that I’d never seen before, it was my peak level.”

While high flies and goals in bunches helped McKenzie gain early traction, she has since developed into quite the midfielder on the back of that fitness base. Clean hands, athleticism, speed, and penetration all also work to make up a well-rounded style, as the 17-year old looks to borrow the best traits from some of the game’s elites.

“I definitely mould my game on a few people,” she said. “Through the forwardline I’d probably say Katie Brennan. She’s just an elite kick, her leading patterns down forward are great, and her marking ability is something I try to emulate myself. “From the men’s I’d say Marcus Bontempelli. Just his ability to burst out of a pack and have such power and strength is something I also aspire to. “And Steele Sidebottom, his kicking ability on both feet is something I look up to and try to achieve myself.

“I like to say that I’m a pretty versatile player, that I can be thrown in almost all positions. “Half-forward has always been a spot where I feel comfortable at, where I can run up the ground and I think obviously the midfield this year I played well in as well. “I guess it’s up to the club that I get picked at.”

Speaking of, McKenzie has nominated the Vic Metro zone as her region of choice for the upcoming draft, allowing her to remain at home. The Hawthorn supporter says she has peaked at the draft order, but “just want(s) to get drafted” and make an immediate impact at the elite level.

“I definitely hope to be picked for the Round 1 game, that’s my aim,” she said. “I don’t think I’m looking to just ease myself in, I really want to hit the ground running and get straight into the team and impact it as well.

“Being able to play alongside people like Gabby Newton, Sarah (Sansonetti), Nell (Morris-Dalton) and Brit (Gutknecht), they’ve all been massive role models for me and I’ve really enjoyed playing alongside them. “I know that I can match the pace of AFLW because I’ve matched it with them, so it’s given me a bit of confidence there, and I guess the success that we’ve had was due to (having) such a strong connection.”

That connection continued into 2020, in a team which McKenzie led alongside good mate, Jess Fitzgerald. After an undefeated premiership season, the Knights co-captain says her side was on track for more finals success, while also putting her outstanding performances down to a mental “reset” after Round 1.

“I was happy with my first three games,” she said. “I think after the (Round 1) Calder Cannons game I had a really high expectation of what I wanted to get out of the game, so I had to kind of reset my mindset. “After that I was really happy with my Geelong Falcons game and my Dandenong game. I thought that I played well for the team and I showcased my skills at the same time. “I was happy with it and I know that the team were happy with the performances overall, obviously getting three out of three wins is something that you really want. “We were definitely on track to be in the Grand Final again this year and maybe even a premiership.”

Much of the Knights’ success has been put down by many, including McKenzie, to a culture of “family”. As much is clearly evident in McKenzie’s glowing reviews of fellow draft hopefuls Fitzgerald and Maeve Chaplin.

“They’re two of my best mates down at the Knights,” she said. “Jess (is) amazing, she’s really funny… but Jess is I think the most hard-working person I’ve ever met. “She’s so determined, she’s always there to pick up her teammates when they’re down, and I know for me she’s always been that positive kind of person on my shoulder, just making sure that I’m in a good headspace.

“Maeve, obviously she’s really charismatic and everyone loves her down at the Knights. “But I think something that a lot of clubs and a lot of people don’t see is that she’s really able to flip the switch and be serious when it comes to a game.”

The pair were among plenty of people McKenzie sought to thank.

“I’d love to thank my family, they’ve always been there for me over the last 10 years I’ve been playing footy,” she said. “They’ve always supported me and not really looked at me as a girl playing footy, but just a person playing footy, an individual.

Nat (Grindal), Marcus (Abney-Hastings) and all the coaches down at the Knights, they’ve been amazing for me and the club. I’m so happy we were able to achieve such success there.

“Everyone at my school has always supported me as well, and all my coaches throughout my junior career have been a massive help.”

The nervous wait until the first name in the 2020 AFL Women’s draft is called out comes to an end on October 6, with McKenzie right among the frontrunners to land at Richmond with pick one.