WHEN it comes to ball winners, Geelong Falcons’ Laura Gardiner is one to watch with an ability to not only accumulate the footy with ease but also use her game smarts to effectively dispose of the ball and do so consistently. The 165cm midfielder is one of a number of players coming through the statewide pathways off the back of junior basketball, before jumping at the chance to shift her focus to the footy field and not looking back.
“I actually started playing footy at 13 for Geelong West Giants locally, so I’ve been playing for about five years now,” Gardner said. “My mum kind of put me into footy because she knew it had more freedom, because it has a lot more freedom than basketball, as in I can use my endurance, and it has just suited me better like with my fitness level.”
“I ended up really loving it and then when it got quite serious later on I ended up stopping basketball for footy and that’s how I kind of started playing footy for the Geelong Falcons.”
The 17-year-old thrives under pressure, able to use her running ability and agility to consistently win ball and create crunching tackles, something that was showcased in the opening rounds of the 2020 NAB League season prior to the league’s cancellation.
With 38 disposals, 14 tackles, five inside 50s and a goal in the opening round of the 2020 season – earning a Draft Central Player of the Week nomination for her efforts – the youngster proved that she is more than capable of taking the lead when required, backing it up the following round with another 31 touches. But the highest of highs was met with the news that the season had been postponed following the Falcons’ third round bye.
The worst was yet to come though, with the subsequent cancellation of the season in August and second wave in Victoria meaning the competition and any chance of an all-stars match were out of the question, leaving many asking what was next.
“Yeah so I was a bit disappointed, but so was everyone else so I guess there was nothing you could really do about it,” Gardiner said. “But I just felt like keeping a routine during the time when we were in lockdown really helped me… either going to the oval to practice kicking or running throughout the week, like keeping that Monday, Wednesday and Friday kind of routine.”
With this routine in mind, Gardiner outlined what she wanted to improve on and has steadily worked through a couple of key aspects of her game – things that could certainly make her an even bigger threat when she can return to the field.
“I’ve been really focusing on like my decision making, not just who I give the ball to, but in a way taking my time when I have that extra second or two, so always giving the first option but also looking to see if there is a better option or a time where I can actually run a little bit more than what I would usually.”
“And definitely my kicking. I’ve been practicing a lot throughout this year,” Gardiner added.
While the cancellation was a huge blow, especially for players who have worked up to their top-age year allowing others to flourish, Gardiner has taken the optimistic approach, suggesting it was a good chance to relieve some of the stress of Year 12, especially knowing at least the rest of the Victorian-based players were in the same boat.
“It’s definitely given me more time to focus on my schoolwork compared to other years. I was prepared to be really stressed out this year, and it has been stressful but it has given me a lot more time to actually prep for my schoolwork,” Gardiner said.
“In a way it does have positives as well as negatives. But yeah, I felt like this year has probably disadvantaged a lot of people but also it’s giving people opportunities with other things.”
When it comes to taking opportunities head on, Gardiner is never one to back down. As a middle-ager last year she was part of a core group participating at the AFL Women’s Under 18 Championships with Vic Country, settling into her role with the squad up in Queensland. The Falcons talent said she felt “really lucky” to play all three games, marking it as a real confidence booster.
“I loved it (Champs). I got to meet heaps of new girls from other teams as well, and even build stronger relationships with the girls I had played with in the Falcons. I felt like it really helped my confidence in a way, because it was out of my comfort zone.”
“I felt like a strength issue was definitely my confidence, I feel like I grew as a person through my confidence, and definitely my pressure around the ball.”
While confidence is certainly something Gardiner has worked on, she is also happy with how she has progressed since last season despite not being able to ply her trade on the field.
“I felt like I worked on that (confidence) a lot in the off-season, and my forward pressure and defensive pressure was good, and definitely teamwork and quick hands, I felt like they were some of my strengths.”
With little contact training allowed in Victoria – even regionally – over the past few months, Gardiner said she has spent plenty of time honing her kicking skills with her dad, crediting her parents for their continued support, on both a football and personal level.
“Definitely my parents, they’re really supportive and they really want me to do the best I can. So I’ve definitely looked up to both of them from a footy perspective and a personal perspective.”
The midfielder says that seeing players progress through the pathways to the AFLW has inspired her, with the young talent on the field rarely looking out of place.
“I look up to some of the young girls from Falcons and other clubs that have gone into the AFL and just fit in really well, like I watch them and you wouldn’t even know they’re a first year player, some of them are just really, really talented,” Gardiner said.
“It’s quite inspiring, I really want to make sure to be like them and put in the work to get to where they are because they’re kind of being that role model to show you that it’s possible and achievable.”