Tag: Northern Knights

2021 NAB League team preview: Northern Knights

NORTHERN Knights coach Leigh Clarke is encouraging his players to identify their “superpowers” as they prepare to return to competitive action on Friday afternoon. After over 550 days away, the Knights will take on Western Jets at Highgate Recreation Reserve and Clarke says most players have turned the time off into a major positive.

“The boys have presented in the best condition I’ve ever seen in terms of their running capabilities,” Clarke said. “Having a kick or a run with one mate was all they could do there for two or three months, but a high-90s percentage of them took the opportunity and have come back in really good condition.

“Being able to clock off 2km time trials that are pushing draft combine sort of levels, it’s a big, big credit to them to be able to back themselves away from the bright lights of pathway training, doing it in the dark and out on their own, so all credit to them.”

As for the superpower theme, it means the Knights will be a side sure of their greatest strengths.

“We’re talking a lot about superpowers at the moment,” Clarke said. “To understand, be clear and direct, be able to look people in the eyes and say ‘my superpower is x’. Have one and that’s it, there’s no debating, you know what your superpower is and you stand on your own two feet and can put that out in the open.

“We’ve got some time to work on all the stuff that’s at the back of the shop, but right now we want to focus on the things they do really well that we want to display that at the front.”

Allowing players to showcase their draftable qualities will also seep through the Knights’ style of play. Clarke says there is “no Da Vinci code” to how teams will look to move the ball, but that there will be similar styles with unique spins on them throughout the competition.

“We always stick to the fundamentals but the (players) have been able to pick up things pretty quickly in terms of how we want to move the ball,” he said. “We’re all following a similar path, we’ve just got various ways of teaching it. Our boys want to play a really exciting brand of footy that should display their draftable talent, so that’s a great starting point for us to be in.”

The region has also taken the approach of backing “character first” in 2021 as the NAB League top age moves up to 19. While like all regions, there are more 19th-year prospects on the list than usual, Northern is also looking forward to welcoming its Under 17 talent to the level once their carnival is completed.

Looking at the Knights’ most outstanding draft eligible talents, Ewan Macpherson is a top-ager with plenty to prove in 2021. The Western Bulldogs father-son prospect missed out on being drafted last year, but spent time with the Bulldogs pushing for a final list spot. The inside midfielder/defender has clean skills and should also feature in the VFL this year.

Tall utility Liam Kolar is another who went close to being picked up as an 18-year-old, but returns to the NAB League to get some more experience under his belt. Having come from a soccer and athletics background, Kolar is a likely type who combines speed and endurance as a key forward or even up on a wing.

He is currently being nursed back to full health though, having rolled an ankle while running out in a Carlton VFL practice match. Carlton NGA talent Regan Uwandu looms as another cog from the starting squad who is being managed back and will likely miss out for Round 1 with a foot injury.

Jackson Bowne is a livewire who will likely catch the eye too, while Ben De Bolfo is an emerging player who is relatively new to the program. The latter has taken up vice-captaincy behind Joel Trudgeon, a fellow 19th-year player who Clarke says is held in high regard by both his coaches and teammates. He is the brother of Carlton AFLW forward, Paige.

Rounding out the leadership trio is Joel Fitzgerald, an exciting 2003-born talent. Among the other 18-year-olds to watch are Josh Ward, Jack Rossimel, and Ben Long, who should feature prominently in the navy, black and white. There are some father-son prospects to keep AFL fans occupied too, with Macpherson, Jackson Archer (son of Glenn), and Mackenzie Hogg (son of Matthew) all rising the ranks.

Northern and Western are up second in Friday’s all-Metro double-header at Craigieburn, which should prove a good tested given the Jets already have a win on the board in 2021. While there may be plenty of cobwebs to be blown out, watch for the Knights’ superpowers to come to the fore this season.

2021 Draft Central NAB League Girls Player of the Week: Round 4

GEELONG Falcons’ Annie Lee has been one of the most consistent performers this season, and was rewarded with the Draft Central NAB League Girls Player of the Week Award for Round 4 for another outstanding effort in defence. Lee was voted in as the Player of the Week over Northern Knights’ Megan Girolami who was equally as impressive up the opposite end of the field in her game, with six goals. Lee becomes the first draft-eligible player to win the Player of the Week Award this season, after 2004-born talents Charlotte Baskaran and Emily Shepherd won the first two weeks.

Lee picked up a game-high 22 disposals in Geelong’s hard-fought win over Eastern Ranges in what was an even team effort. However it was her 10 rebounds – her side only finished with 27 total and the opposition 20 – that really stood out in the victory. Of her 22 disposals, Lee had 19 kicks, as well as clunking eight marks and two tackles. What makes her such an impressive performer is the fact that she is so well balanced and is equally as dangerous in the air as she is at ground level, particularly the fact she can compete against opponents taller than her 169cm height.

In her three games this season, Lee has averaged 18.3 disposals, 6.3 marks, 4.3 tackles and 6.3 rebounds, with a consistent kicking efficiency and four-quarter effort. Often being that extra player in defence, Lee can just as easily be the third person at a contest, or go one-on-one and bring the ball to ground, and is a teammate that Falcons look to get the ball in the hands of when transitioning from defence to offence.

The Geelong Falcons are undefeated at present, having won their three games thus far in season 2021. Whilst they fought past Eastern Ranges on the weekend, they also collected the scalps of Greater Western Victoria (GWV) Rebels and Bendigo Pioneers in the opening couple of rounds that were played.

NAB League Girls Player of the Week:

Round 1: Charlotte Baskaran (Western Jets)
Round 3: Emily Shepherd (Dandenong Stingrays)
Round 4: Annie Lee (Geelong Falcons)

 

>> Geelong Falcons 2021 season preview

>> Annie Lee player page

 

GEELONG FALCONS AT THE COMBINE INTERVIEWS:

2021 VFLW season preview: Carlton

CARLTON has hit “the reset button” on its VFLW program and is looking towards long-term development in 2021 and beyond, according to new head coach Luke O’Shannessy. With vast experience in the talent pathways system, most notably at the Oakleigh Chargers, O’Shannessy says he is excited to see how the group progresses across his first season at the helm.

“It’s been a really interesting preseason for us,” O’Shannessy said. “We’ve had a significant list turnover for the last two years, so there’s a lot of new faces. “During summer and preseason there has been a big focus on squad bonding and that real connection between the playing group, and we’re starting to see that come to fruition. It’s great to see a group gel so quickly over a short preseason.

“I was really pleased with how the group came back after having 2020 put on pause from a structured and formal training sense, requiring players to drive their own training – whether that’s from a fitness or skills perspective. “When I came on board in late-October/early-November our first month was still online and I was really nervous I suppose, but I was very pleased that clearly they’d been putting in the hard yards over the Covid break and came back in really good shape.”

The long-term approach Carlton has adopted towards its VFLW program as a potential feeder to its AFLW squad has also pleased O’Shannessy. As an aligned club, the Blues will have access to AFLW-listed players who miss out on senior selection throughout the top flight season. O’Shannessy said the perks running concurrent competitions makes for a “win-win” for both programs.

“It can only benefit the program, he said. “We had nearly seven players go up and spend two weeks training with the AFLW program (during preseason). “It was invaluable for their development, the chance to go up and see how the AFLW program works, mingle and work with no-doubt their role models in the AFLW program and work under ‘Harf’ (Daniel Harford) and his crew.

“When they came back they were able to share some of their learnings, both positive and maybe some areas they needed to lift moving forward – whether it was their running capacity, the speed and intensity of training and match sim, the physicality – all those sorts of things that they learned.

“From the other side of things, over the last couple of practice matches, we’ve had the luxury of having between five and six AFLW-listed players spend a game with us and five of the six have been the same in both game, so we got a chance to get to know them from a staff point of view and the players have gotten to know them as well.

“They really slotted in seamlessly and we acknowledge that they’ve got aspirations to crack the senior side and we want to get them there through being able to perform with us, but at the same time we want to learn from them. “It’s only going to make us stronger and role model the sorts of match play and professional behaviours that we know they bring from an AFLW point of view.”

At the core of a fresh and young-looking squad are a couple of returning leaders who will head Carlton’s cause in 2021. Ally Bild was voted in as captain and will be supported by vice-captain Jen Lew, along with three others in a five-player leadership group. O’Shannessy identified his two official leaders as benchmark players for the side, while some promising recruits are also primed to make a splash.

“(Bild and Lew) are really setting the tone for the playing group and becoming real benchmarks for levels of professionalism on and off the field,” he said, “They’re ticking all the boxes and really role-modelling the sorts of behaviours that you’d like to see at VFLW level and beyond… there’s a reason they’ve been voted in as captain and vice-captain.

“We’ve got some players who have relocated down from Cairns in Jasmine Ware and Akayla Peterson. “Jasmine Ware is a small-medium defender, has really slotted in nicely and had her best showing in the weekend’s practice match. Akayla is a running outside player who can play tall but also run end-to-end. We see her being able to feature on the wing at times or as a half-forward hit-up target.

“Then we’ve got a lot of good young talent coming through as well… we’ve got Amber Micallef who’s a 19-year-old straight out of the NAB League, she’s going to feature strongly in the midfield. “They’re just a few names to keep an eye out for… I’m really keen to see each and every player in the squad because it’s my first year working with each of them, so I’m looking forward to seeing how they go this year.”

Carlton will also have access to 18 and 19-year-old NAB League-listed prospects, most significantly through its alignment to the Northern Knights talent region. AFLW Academy member Maykaylah Appleby has already spent some time training with the Blues, while 19-year-old Maeve Chaplin has had experience on the track with their AFLW program. Teleah Smart is also poised to join the squad, and was coached by O’Shannessy in the 2019 Vic Metro Under 16 squad alongside Appleby.

The Blues enjoyed two practice matches against the Western Bulldogs, going 1-1 in the games held at Princes Park and Whitten Oval. O’Shannessy said the repeat fixture ended up being “a blessing in disguise”, providing some valuable insight as his side prepares for season proper.

“We were able to benchmark ourselves against the same club twice to see what was the same, to compare and contrast our performance and that of the opposition,” he said. “From our point of view results ultimately don’t really matter, it’s all about what you see from game one to game two over a two-week period… we were really pleased to see that the girls put a really strong showing in game two.

“We liked a lot of game one, we saw some glimpses, but then we saw a really rounded performance in game two. “You could argue it was a real good three and a half quarters of really strong football that fills us as a squad with great confidence going into Round 1.

“We saw increased scoring from our point of view and an increased hunger for the contest, which is something we’re trying to build into the squad as two key pillars. “High-scoring and stronger around the contest with some good run-and-carry on the outside.”

Looking towards Round 1, the Blues are booked to take on Casey Demons at Princes Park on Saturday afternoon. O’Shannessy said the squad is about “90 per cent” good to go, with some returning players set to make team selection a difficult one come Thursday.

“We’re ready to rock and roll and I couldn’t ask to be in a better spot at this time of the year,” he said.

Image Credit: (Retrieved from) @carltonfc_w via Twitter

Grateful Knights focussed on building connection

AFTER a difficult year for all, the Northern Knights are putting things into perspective heading into the 2021 NAB League Girls season. Former female talent coordinator, Natalie Grindal has stepped into the new, extended talent operations lead role which oversees both the boys and girls programs, along with incoming coach Leigh Clarke.

Grindal says she sometimes has to “pinch (herself)” though at her latest opportunity, with that perspective extending throughout the Northern talent program. While the wealth of changes and a condensed preseason schedule could be perceived as challenges for some, Grindal insists her Knights are grateful just to have football back.

“It’s always been a dream of mine to work in footy and to be able to do it now full-time and work across our girls program and now with our 17s and 19s boys, it’s amazing,” Grindal said.

“I think everyone is in the same boat with regards to what’s gone on in the last 12 months. “Obviously in terms of the staffing we’ve had a pretty significant change in personnel from a coaching perspective… so for us pre-Christmas and even post-Christmas the real focus was just on building that connection and building those rapports – whether it be player-to-player or player-to-staff – that’s been a real focus for us.”

“To be honest, we’re just really grateful to have footy back in any capacity. “Firstly it was training and now we’re just grateful and excited for the return of games, that’s the attitude that we’re taking at the moment.”

The success of the region, particularly over the last two years, in developing AFLW talent has been outstanding. In 2019 and 2020, number one AFLW draft picks in Gabby Newton and Ellie McKenzie graduated from the Northern program, along with a whole generation of elite-level prospects. Grindal says such honours were a “fantastic” result for the region.

“It was fantastic for the club to have Gabby and Ellie both go number one,” she said. “It’s a huge credit to the work that Marcus (Abney-Hastings), our coaching and support staff put into our program and our players’ development.”

“We’re really blessed in the northern region to have some fantastic local football clubs produce great footballers that come through and we’re just the beneficiary of those two girls, they’re outstanding. “It was fantastic to see Ellie debut on the weekend and Gabby still doing a fantastic job at the Bulldogs as well.”

This year, despite another turnover of top-age talent, the Knights are in good stead to again supply the top level of women’s football. Getting back to training in large unrestricted groups has helped players thrive as season proper approaches, and Grindal says players were “glowing” at the prospect of match simulation during the most recent preseason training stint.

“The girls were split into groups of about 10 (pre-Christmas), so when we returned post-Christmas, which was only two and a bit weeks ago, we were allowed to train in a full squad and you could tell that was what the girls were craving,” she said.

“Even from a preparation perspective, being able to do some match simulation – Leigh and I were talking and you could tell their faces were glowing, they had massive smiles after the first time we did some match simulation. “They obviously haven’t played for close to 11 months now of actual competitive football so for them to be able to get back, play with their friends and do what they love was really exciting.”

An “even split” across the age groups is set to make for a unique squad dynamic, as the competition moves towards Under 19 status in 2021. Grindal says the Knights will potentially have players stretched across four ages at any given time, with a number of standouts already emerging in the draft eligible categories.

“It’s an interesting one,” she said. “We’ll have some 19-year-olds returning, then we’ve probably got a pretty even split between 18 and 17-year-olds and we’ll also have a couple of 16-year-olds that will be on our list as well.”

Maeve Chaplin is going to return this year and play for us which is fantastic. “We’re excited for her to have another opportunity to show her skillset at the NAB League level, she was probably one of the really unlucky ones with the season cutting short – she didn’t get a full season to put her best foot forward and to prove herself to recruiters and AFLW clubs.”

Maykayla Appleby‘s in the AFLW national academy; she’s an 18-year-old, a really smart ball user who had played previously outside mid. “Obviously with Ellie and Fitzy (Jess Fitzgerald) in particular in the midfield last year, we’re looking at different players this year to step up and take that opportunity to take their game to the next level.”

Teleah Smart, who’s an 18-year-old as well, played in our 2019 premiership side as a bottom-ager, so she was 16-years-old then. “Unfortunately she was injured at the start of 2020 and was due to play in Round 4 as the competition was suspended so she’s well and truly itching to get back out there. “She’s an inside mid, an absolute contested ball winner, hard at it and I’m really excited to see her back out there again.”

Tarrah Delgado, probably at the start of the 2020 had a breakout year for us. “She played a couple of games with us in 2019 and then played all three in 2020 and really found her spot in defence. “She’s a really solid intercept marking defender, with an incredible read on the game and a pretty impressive kick on her, so she’s another one that I’m really looking forward to seeing how the year pans out for her.”

The Knights’ leadership group was announced at the club’s jumper presentation event on Wednesday, with Smart and Mikayla Plunkett set to co-captain as Georgia Kitchell takes up vice-captaincy. With no major injuries throughout preseason and a near-full squad to choose from, Northern faces a tough test in facing up to the Oakleigh Chargers for their Round 1 outing on Sunday afternoon.

Tenacious Snow takes the long road to her footballing goal

THE PATH less travelled by is a phrase often attached to the journey of budding AFL Women’s draftees. Well, how does Perth, to Singapore, to America, to Melbourne sound?

That’s the journey Northern Knights prospect Ashleigh Snow has embarked on throughout her young life, with an AFLW club potentially the next destination. The diminutive defender-turned-midfielder learned to play football through a school program during her seven years in Singapore, and says she “always wanted to play” having watched her brother and dad do the same.

“I went to an Aussie school, so they had a little program where I learned to play,” Snow said. “My brother and dad played so I just always wanted to play. I played there for two years and then came back to Melbourne and that’s where I joined my first girl’s team at West Preston.”

Snow entered the Northern Knights through its development program, before turning out six times throughout the region’s undefeated premiership season in 2019, and thrice more in 2020. Though injury kept her out of last year’s Grand Final team, Snow came back strongly as a top-ager.

Her form was enough to warrant a National Combine invite, something which Snow says was “unexpected” following the cancellation of this year’s NAB League season.

“In the year that Knights won the NAB League premiership, I missed out because of my injury which was a bit hard,” she said. “I went back this year and only got to play the three games, but I feel like I came back pretty (strongly) and got to show what I could do in those games.”

“I started playing midfield which was a bit different because I played (in the) backline for the last two years before that. I feel like I seemed pretty determined and was always going hard for the ball. In one of the games I even got a goal against Calder, which is a bit different for me, always being down back.”

“The draft, being invited to the combine, and having the interviews was actually really unexpected for me. I just thought ‘the season’s over and that’s it’. “But luckily enough I have a little gym in my garage so I’ve been doing circuits every day to keep my fitness up. So hopefully if I do get drafted I’ll be in alright shape for preseason.”

Lauded for her tenacity and toughness at the ball despite her size, Snow’s importance to the team has long been known to those who can see past the conveyer belt of stars Northern has produced of late. She comes from good pedigree as well, with her father, David a former WAFL footballer and 1996 Simpson Medal winner. The ‘daughter-of’ says her dad has long been one of her greatest motivators, along with outgoing Knights coach Marcus Abney-Hastings.

“My dad has a massive footy background and I just have to say, he’s the one person who’s non-stop motivating me,” she said. (He is) always asking me to go for runs, do workouts with him, and wanting to go for kicks. “When I don’t want to do any of that he’ll keep pushing me and he knows that in the long run I’ll be thankful that he made me do it.”

“Marcus has been the coach for the whole three years I’ve been (at Northern). I really like him and feel like he’s been the most supportive…  obviously all the coaches as Knights like Marcus and Nat Grindal, they’ve been a massive help. “They’ve always made me keep belief in myself and given me the confidence that I sort of struggle to have.”

The Knights’ affiliation with Carlton’s AFLW side saw Snow choose the Blues as her favourite women’s side, though her upbringing in Perth meant she grew up a West Coast Eagles fan. Heading into the draft, Snow says she will be watching alongside her family and boyfriend at home amid Melbourne’s lockdown, hoping to hear her name called out.

“My parents and friends (have) always supported me in life. My boyfriend I think is my number one fan, he’s proudest out of everyone,” she said.

The 2020 AFL Women’s Draft will be held virtually at 7pm AEDT on October 6.

Capable Chaplin knows believing is achieving

HER coaches know it, her teammates know it, anyone who has observed her journey through the NAB League pathway knows it, but only now is Maeve Chaplin realising that she truly belongs among the best women’s football has to offer.

The Northern Knights defender has come a long way since starting football at age seven; originally playing alongside boys, then moving to girl’s sides at West Preston Lakeside and the Darebin Falcons, while also advancing through Northern’s elite talent program.

As a middle-ager, Chaplin was part of the Knights’ undefeated premiership team, shining across half-back with her mix of physicality and class on the ball. An injury in Round 3 of her top-age campaign was unideal, though it would matter little in the grand scheme of things as the season would eventually be scrapped amid a global pandemic.

By her own estimation, Chaplin was “travelling pretty well” and was as fit as she had ever been. She was in the midst of a move into the midfield, joining co-captains Ellie McKenzie and Jess Fitzgerald at the centre bounces and waxing well with the probable first-round draft talents.

While the 18-year-old and her teammates may have had plenty more to give in 2020, Chaplin says the break in play has allowed her to work on the mental side of her game.

“I definitely tried to use (the lockdown period) to my advantage and I really worked on myself mentally,” Chaplin said. “It was a big thing for me because I didn’t really have the time like I do now to just focus on myself. “It was a time for me to understand that I really do want to get far in footy and that I am prepared to play at a professional level. “In order to do that I really wanted to mature in those areas.

“I just wish I did believe in myself… but it’s something that I really want to work on and I have been working on throughout this isolation period. Just knowing mentally that I am good enough and I can get to that next level, it’s just all about pushing myself.”

The friendship of a Knight-turned-Bulldog who has also been part of the Darebin football family, Nell Morris-Dalton has helped Chaplin thrive. Chaplin says she has remained in constant contact with her former teammate throughout the lockdown period.

“A big (mentor) for me has definitely been Nell,” she said. She’s really helped, inspired, and guided me a lot throughout the season because we’ve got the same personality in a way. “I’ve been texting her quite a bit during isolation so she’s a really good friend.

“It’s pretty amazing to play with (the Northern Knights), they’re all so talented. “You really grow off each other and challenge each other, so it helps everyone get better at the end of the day. “Playing with them, you don’t really think about how good they are, they’re just more your friends.”

Maeve Chaplin moves through traffic

Northern’s cohesive team and a family-like atmosphere has certainly played a part in Chaplin’s rise. The aforementioned midfield move was one bought on by coach Marcus Abney-Hastings and talent manager Nat Grindal, allowing Chaplin to bring her defensive nous to a rather potent midfield group.

She says the move was somewhat of a natural progression from the defensive post she owned throughout 2019, though she still harbours hope of returning to half-back in future.

“It was kind of expected,” she said. “Nat and Marcus let me know that they were going to put me up into the midfield and get me a bit more of the ball which was good to have.

“I definitely brought some of my defensive traits into the midfield, using my bodywork, so that was a bonus. “I felt like in doing that, I helped Ellie and Jess play their best footy as well. “It was definitely a good move up the ground, it was fun.

“I would prefer to play on the half-back flank (at AFLW level) but playing in the midfield does come naturally to me just as much as the backline. “But I’ll obviously put my best effort in playing there and it’d be a really good opportunity.”

The versatile prospect, who models her game on Richmond defender Phoebe Monahan, has not only improved herself off-field, but has reaffirmed some of the improvements to be made through contact with AFLW clubs. While “feeding off” their directive, Chaplin has also put the onus back on the recruiters and coaches during their meetings.

“They have given me some things that I need to work on, or they’ve mentioned them and I’ve fed off them a little bit,” she said. “But I’ve been more self-directing, I’ve just told them what I feel like I need to work on and ask them how they’re going to support me and all that kind of stuff.”

“Obviously there’s a few things (to improve on). My aerobic endurance I definitely want to work on, I want to be the fittest that I can be because that was definitely me at the start of the year. “With the right support staff I can definitely get to that level again and even better than that.

“A few other things that I really want to work on are just my mentality, that’s a big thing for me. Just knowing that I am at that level physically to play, and getting myself there mentally as well.”

Outside of football, Chaplin is working through her Year 12 studies and hopes to move into either nursing or paramedicine next year. She sought to thank all the people at the Northern Knights for all the support and life lessons she has received from them, as well as her teammates Fitzgerald, McKenzie, Alyssa Bannan, Ash Snow, and Abigail Bennett.

“They’re all just really good teammates, I really love them.”

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.

Knights star Bannan leaves it all out on the field

BUDDING AFL Women’s draftee Alyssa Bannan came into her top-age year looking to “put everything out onto the field with every game.” Little did she, or any of her fellow NAB Leaguers know that their season would be cut short to just three games, but an increase in work-rate, work ethic, and intensity certainly payed off for the Northern Knights key forward.

“I was actually very proud of how I went,” Bannan said. “Knowing that this was my last year as a top-ager and it was my opportunity to get drafted, I went out thinking that I had to play my best game, every single game. “How I felt coming off the field definitely made me think that I did myself proud, did my family proud, and did my friends proud with how I played.”

Nine goals in three outings, including a bag of five in the season-opening Grand Final rematch goes a long way to instilling such pride. It even saw Bannan shift her original end goal of being drafted, to being selected within the first round. But more significantly than simply being a great player on-field, the 18-year-old is determined to prove her worth as a quality person, off it.

“It’s definitely not so much about being a good player on the field, but also being a good person off the field,” she said. “I’ve found that clubs have been very big on not only being a very skilful player, but being kind, being caring, being motivated, and that’s what has been the focus throughout the year.”

Alyssa Bannan gets a kick away during this year’s NAB League season

The break from football has somewhat proven a blessing in disguise. While Bannan admits the early unknown was “difficult”, she says the time off has allowed her to find a greater balance in life.

“At the start it was definitely very difficult not knowing if we were going to be able to finish off our season,” she said. “But I think having this break has allowed me to develop individually on aspects of my game that I wouldn’t normally focus on, such as my mental heath with wellness sessions and being able to (practice) mindfulness. “Although it has been disappointing not being able to finish, I’ve definitely been able to work on those different aspects of my life to balance it out.”

Having played a key part in Northern’s unbeaten NAB League premiership last year, Bannan has risen through the ranks alongside some of the greatest players the competition has seen. Namely, 2019 captain and current Western Bulldogs rising star Gabby Newton has had a major impact on the Knights’ no. 6, helping establish a healthy and competitive environment to improve in.

In line with the standard such players set, Bannan says she also sought to become a leading figure in her side’s setup.

“Having played alongside Gabby Newton and personally getting to know her, her qualities and attitudes as a player have definitely been something that I look up to,” she said. “Her teamwork, her (desire) to do really well and continue to improve are definitely qualities that really strike home to me as ones I want to present.”

“The new role as a top-ager really made me want to lead and present myself as someone who people can look up to and can think ‘She’s a really good player, I want to aspire to be like her.’ That’s been my overall goal throughout, especially this season.”

The Northern Knights celebrate their 2019 NAB League premiership

Bannan, a Carlton supporter also looks up to AFL Women’s trailblazer Tayla Harris. If a player comparison is what you are after, an easy link can be made between the two high-flying forwards.

“Tayla Harris is a big player who I wanted to model my game style on,” Bannan said. “Playing in similar positions, having a similar style of play, she’s definitely been a player that I really look up to and who I would like to emulate when I hopefully get to play AFLW.”

Football has also impacted the youngster in terms of her other potential career options, too. As she completes her Year 12 studies, Bannan has one eye on a vocation in the sporting realm, helping athletes get the best out of their game. It is a theme she says her football career has helped bring out.

“Sport is definitely on the list,” she said. “I’d love to do anything to do with strength and conditioning, high performance, even if it’s performance analysis. “Just improving players and their performance, because that’ll definitely help me see how to improve my performance as well. I think footy’s definitely brought that side out in me.”

With her first round draft dream in tow, Bannan is seeking to hit the ground running once her shot at the big-time is sealed, out to prove not only to herself and clubs, but to fans that she is “on the field for a reason.” The Northern Knights graduate also sought to thank the “long list of people” to have influenced her footballing journey; from her supportive family, to her coaches, teammates, staff, and everyone in between who helped her get to where she is.

Draft Central All-Star Team matchup: Northern Knights vs. Swan Districts

OUR next All-Star Team battle is the final one of the Round of 16 between a Victorian club and a West Australian club, in the Northern Knights and Swan Districts. The two captains voted in by the public as the All-Star Players of the AFL Draft era were AFL games record holder, Brent Harvey (Northern Knights) and Richmond full-back, Alex Rance (Swan Districts).

TEAMS:

These clubs are seeded fifth (Northern Knights) and 12th (Swan Districts) respectively, forming another Round of 16 clash in our draw. The winner will qualify for the quarter finals, set to face the Murray Bushrangers/Oakleigh Chargers.

STRENGTHS:

The Knights have a really underrated squad when it comes to this series simply because there are not too many weaknesses. The Knights’ spine is A-grade quality from the key defenders in Simon Prestigiacomo and Michael Hurley, to the key forwards in Anthony Rocca and Lance Whitnall. Though that is not to take anything away from the midfield with Marcus Bontempelli, Trent Cotchin and Adam Simpson a really well balanced core with different strengths.

For the Swans, they have an elite starting midfield. Nic Naitanui in the ruck, with Stephen Coniglio, Michael Walters and Andrew Embley at the stoppages, you would back them in to win the midfield battle. Up forward, the likes of Charlie Cameron and Jeff Garlett would create havoc at the feet of their key forwards, while Lewis Jetta‘s elite kicking and Rance’s intercepting ability means they have some strong players across the field.

WEAKNESSES:

There are not really any weaknesses with the Knights. If you had to be picky you could argue the lack of wingers, given Leigh Montagna and Paul Licuria are more inside ball winners, and while both Blake Caracella and David Zaharakis could play on the wing, it leaves the forward line a little short. Overall though, the depth is pretty sound.

For the Swans, it is that depth and little pockets in different parts of the field where they just fall short. They could match it with the Knights in the midfield, but outside of that, they would be stretched in different areas of the field.

SUMMARY:

The Knights would be favoured in this one for a bit more balance across the ground. Swan Districts has an elite midfield, and some star talent around the ground, but the depth of the Knights would be a bit too much.

Who would you pick?
Northern Knights
Swan Districts
Created with Quiz Maker

All-Star Team of the AFL Draft Era: Which club is the best of the best?

EVERY year, a new crop of AFL Draft talents rise up and make waves at AFL level. Some clubs such as Calder Cannons and Geelong Falcons are referred to as ‘footy factories’. Others are less well known, but nonetheless vital in providing players with their start to the AFL.

Over the past couple of months, Draft Central has gone through all of the NAB League, SANFL and WAFL clubs and tried to determine the best 24-player squad for their respective clubs. The captains and vice-captains were determined by the public through Instagram voting. Now, it is up to the public to decide which All-Star Team is the greatest of the lot. That’s right, the 30 teams from Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia are going head to head in a knockout draw.

Which teams are competing?

NAB League [12]: Bendigo Pioneers, Calder Cannons, Dandenong Stingrays, Eastern Ranges, Geelong Falcons, Gippsland Power, GWV Rebels, Murray Bushrangers, Northern Knights, Oakleigh Chargers, Sandringham Dragons, Western Jets
SANFL [9]: Central District, Glenelg, North Adelaide, Norwood, Port Adelaide, South Adelaide, Sturt, West Adelaide, Woodville-West Torrens
WAFL [9]: Claremont, East Fremantle, East Perth, South Fremantle, Peel Thunder, Perth, Subiaco, Swan Districts, West Perth

How will it work?

Each day at 10am, we will publish the two All-Star Teams of the AFL Draft era, and the public will be able to vote through the article, Facebook and Twitter, with the overall winner moving through to the next round.

Given there are 30 teams, two sides who we have picked out as the top two seeds – East Fremantle and Geelong Falcons – will have the bye in the opening round, with the other 28 teams seeded appropriately similar to the All-Star Player voting (3rd against 28th, 4th against 27th etc.).

Who is up first?

The first All-Star Team battle is between a couple of metropolitan sides who we have seeded 16th and 17th in the draw. They both have some absolute elite stars, but Calder Cannons and Western Jets will begin the voting on Monday. They will be followed by the Greater Western Victoria (GWV) Rebels and Eastern Ranges on Tuesday, before a cross-state clash sees third seed Port Adelaide Magpies tackle Peel Thunder.