COMING from a basketball background, Sandringham Dragons midfielder Eliza McNamara has dealt with her fair share of setbacks over the years. A concussion last season ruled her out of some matches at NAB League level, and she missed out on playing at the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships second round on the Gold Coast, but it has not slowed her desire to be the best possible player and achieve her dream of landing on an AFL Women’s list.
“I used to play a lot of basketball and then we got told to check out the local footy team because they were starting to grow the girls culture there,” McNamara said of her first taste of football. “So I joined halfway through my Year 8 season, just at Ashburton footy club and then it was quite big at school but obviously you can’t play until Year 9. I really loved it when I was old enough to play in Year 9 because I was playing with a couple of girls who are in the AFLW Academy and in the AFLW now like Liv Vesely and Abbie McKay.
“From there I played at Sandy and moved to East Malvern footy club which was so fun. “There’s like five girls in that team who were also in the Sandy squad, so we kind of learnt each other’s dynamics in club and Sandy, which kind has made the core of our top-agers quite strong is because we’ve played against each other in club and we’ve also played with each other.”
The familiarity with each other’s games is a key reason why the Dragons have improved from year to year and have a record amount of AFL Women’s Draft Combine invites.
“I think as bottom-agers you end to respect the older kids and because we were all able to grow together from bottom-agers to the older kids, we kind of just grew off each other’s talents and brain-picked each other for how they do X and Y in a game and learn off them in a training session as well as on the field and we kind of got a sense of how each other plays,” McNamara said. “How to complement each other in our footy which is quite an asset to our team.”
She might not have played in the week-long carnival on the Gold Coast, but McNamara pulled on the ‘Big V’ from an early age, representing Metro at Under 16s level.
“That’s one really good thing about playing through NAB League is that you do get recognised and your name gets out there so it kind of, when it starts to pick up momentum, it provides a lot of opportunities,” McNamara said. “Obviously I was lucky enough to play in that Vic team, and then from there you play with girls who you inadvertently play again in the NAB League which you learn off their strengths but also you’re able to identify what each team’s got going for them.
“Like obviously Northern Knights have quite a high representation in Vic so when you come up against them, you know they’ve got quite a strong midfield and forward, so we’re going to have to be really switched on this game. “But opportunity and confidence which then adds to your footy skills through that.”
A natural inside midfielder, McNamara’s willingness to win the hardball came at a cost last year when she copped a concussion and was forced to the sidelines. While hungry to run out on the field, the Dragons middle-ager did take positives from the experience.
“It was frustrating just because I then had to miss a couple of games but it was also a bit fortunate I think we had the Easter weekend so we didn’t have a game anyway,” McNamara said. “I only missed one less game than I should have as well so, you just kind of learn from not being able to play you realise how much you want to be on the field, when you’re watching the games you don’t get nearly as much fun as when you’re playing it.”
“But then it was another blessing that I was able to see this is where our team struggles, so when I am able to play again this is how we’re going to improve, and this is how I can get myself involved,” she said. “When you take a step back and watch, you see how midfields or wingers get lost on the ground, as an observer of that, you’re able to recognise where they could be, and then implement it into your own game which is a good thing.”
The concussion has not stopped the small tenacious midfielder from fiercely attacking the contest. But it has opened up other opportunities for her to increase her versatility and work on other aspects of her game.
“I love kind of going through the midfield which was one blessing for this year, because I got taken out of the inside mid just because the coaches wanted to protect my head because I got a concussion last year,” McNamara said. “Which meant I was able to be thrown around and learn different positions like the wing, high-forward, and like kind of how to involve myself in the game in a midfield sense and still remain an attacking and defensive player, but also nailing some running patterns and getting a better sense of the roles other than inside mid.”
“That’s like helpful one, in terms of confidence that I can play those roles, but also two, if I was to be in the inside mid, then I know how to involve the wings because I’ve played that role, I know the patterns and then I’m able to become an inside mid’s perspective. “The wings sometimes gets a bit neglected because no-one really knows how to incorporate them in girls footy, but I think that is growing with opportunities with NAB, they drill in the importance of each position.”
It is no surprise that her regards her attack on the ball as one of her strengths, showing no fear going into the coalface and winning it for her side. But she also has a sense of undoing any wrongs, such as fixing her own mistakes.
“If I turn it over then I’m adamant that I have to go get that ball and get it back to our team,” McNamara said. “I think I’ve got a sense of just want to fix things on the field so my efforts are all repeated and have a lot of drive and intent in them.”
The talented small is working on polishing her kicking and having greater consistency and variety in the action, which is something she has been looking at over the off-season. Having set small goals each week – such as improving each quarter of each game – McNamara has a big goal coming up, and has been working hard during the lockdown period to achieve it.
“I mean I’m in the middle of three ovals, so I’m quite lucky where I’ve been locked down and we’ve got cricket nets on one of the ovals, so Tam‘s (Hyett, senior coach) made me drill the ball into the cricket nets and just be able to get a penetrating kick between the nets and not miss it,” McNamara said. “Obviously there’s frustrations of the ball getting stuck on top, but that’s a bit of a motive to concentrate and fix my kicking. “That’s probably been my biggest goal this season.”
At first being told the season had been called off was a bit of a shock, with a number of players upset and McNamara described it as “demoralising” and “such a waste of a season”. But then she took a look at the “silver linings”.
“Our coach Tam lives near me so when the state rules had gone through, we’d gone for a couple of kicks,” McNamara said. “I’ve got three brothers so i’ve always got a kicking buddy at home, but yeah initially it just sucked. “There’s nothing better than team sports. “Even though you’re training at home, it doesn’t replicate the sense of passion and fun you get when you’re playing in the team.”
Indeed the sense of team at the Dragons is strong with McNamara acknowledging not only Hyett’s work with her over the journey, but some of the fitness staff as well who have contributed to her progression through the Sandringham program.
“The coaches at Sandy deserve such a big wrap, especially Tam and the fitness coaches Danny (Byrne) and Fraser (Cameron), everyone we’ve had them since for the past three years,” McNamara said. “They’ve been our foundation of coaches and they’ve never waived in their support or given us a half, they’ve always been fully committed to us so I think the coaches at Sandy definitely deserve a major wrap.”
Despite missing out on the championships last year – given the difficulty of squeezing into the side as a middle-ager – and then not getting to play out her own top-age championships this year, McNamara took confidence from her performances at NAB League level.
“I think confidence naturally comes when one, your team wins, but also even training sessions are quite good for confidence,” McNamara said. “I found playing club in between last season and this season was such a good re-establishment that if you are able to play really good footy then you kind of learn to train further into a bit more of a competitive level at NAB League. “The main thing with confidence I find is till having enjoyment and playing your own game.
“Even though you have a prescribed role in the team, there’s a way to individualise it a little bit and as long as you don’t lose that individuality in your role, you just naturally succeed a bit better and I guess that’s what reaffirms your confidence and your player is succeeding in the role you’re given.”
Her dream of earning a spot on an AFL Women’s list could be less than a week away, and McNamara hoped to follow idols such as Daisy Pearce and former Melbourne Girls’ graduate Bonnie Toogood into the elite level. While she knows next week is not the last opportunity to play in the AFL Women’s, she know exactly what it would mean to her.
“It would mean everything,” McNamara said. “It would be a weight off your shoulders, but also exciting and I don’t even know. “It would be great, a bit of excitement this year when not much has happened. “I think once you’ve been playing at such a level and dedicated so much time and mum and dad driving me X, Y and Z all over Melbourne, and we get the buses to Wangaratta, it’s kind of a nice way to finish junior football stepping into such an elite environment. “You don’t know, boundless opportunities to come from there so it would be very exciting.”