BETWEEN her football commitments and working on her family farm, Abbie Ballard does not have much time to relax. However, while on the cusp of achieving her AFL Women’s dream, we offered Ballard the opportunity to reflect on her football journey so far.
“I started playing at the Peake District Football Club when I was 10,” Ballard said. “I mainly played with the boys in the Auskick at half time of the A Grade, but every now and again the boys needed me to fill in for the Under 13s. I did that for a year, then played full-time for the boys until I was 15.”
Unlike female footballers who competed in the boys’ competitions because it was their only option, Ballard actually preferred playing against the boys.
“I loved it, it was a much cleaner game to play and just so much more fun,” she said. “The boys weren’t afraid to tackle me and I wasn’t afraid to tackle them, it was the best.”
Ballard moved to West Adelaide to play against the girls when she was 15. Although the competition was not originally played at a great standard, Ballard says the league has made significant progress.
“[SANFLW footy] has definitely been improving, everyone’s getting better and the competition’s becoming great,” she said. “It’s a really good quality of football now, the speed of the game is quicker and the skills are much better than they used to be.”
Ballard has achieved extraordinary continuity and consistency during her time in SANFLW, having played 31 out of 32 games over the past three years. She missed her first game this year due to an unfortunate concussion.
“I’ve been really lucky with injuries and have never really had one until this year, and I’ve always played consistent football so I’ve been picked every week,” Ballard said.
At just age 17 in 2019, Ballard won West Adelaide’s SANFLW Best and Fairest and finished sixth in the SANFLW League medal count. Very few AFLW prospects have attained this level of success prior to their draft year.
“These were huge achievements,” she said. “I was so proud that, at such a young age, I was playing such good football in the women’s league. “I’ve worked so hard to get where I am and it really just made everything worth it. “The Best and Fairest is definitely the best accolade in my career so far.”
This season, Ballard finished fifth in the SANFLW medal count and led the Bloods to their first SANFLW Finals appearance. In a convincing semi-final victory over Norwood, Ballard collected 12 disposals, laid eight tackles and kicked a goal. Their season ended the following week with a 30-point Preliminary Final loss to South Adelaide.
“Everyone was so proud of how well we did this season,” Ballard said. “We worked so hard to get there and we wanted to go out and put everything we had left on the field, which is definitely what happened.”
Ballard has learnt plenty from teammates that have already made the leap from SANFLW to AFLW. She is delighted that they continue to play at West Adelaide when they are available.
“Some Westies girls who are now at the Crows like Maddi Newman, Chelsea Biddell and Rachelle Martin have been major inspirations for me,” she said. “It’s been amazing to watch what they’ve been able to do and see them improve so much. I want to follow their pathway.”
Ballard highlights Martin, the joint 2020 SANFLW League Best and Fairest, as the player that has helped her the most.
“Rachelle has taught me a lot about how to become a better midfielder, how to tackle better, how to body people and how to get into the right positions at stoppages,” she said.
As Ballard has stated, her career goal is to follow in these girls’ footsteps.
“I’d love to get into AFLW, that is my aim,” she said. “Hopefully that will be achievable this year, but we will see what happens. “I’ve put my name down for this year’s draft.”
Although Ballard is primarily an inside midfielder, her booming left-foot kick makes her a weapon on the outside as well.
“I take a lot of pride in my kicking,” she said. “My kicking accuracy and ability to get in the contest and hit the ball hard are my biggest strengths, probably my handball accuracy as well. I work hard to improve my skills every year.”
In order to elevate her game to the next level, Ballard has a specific focus over the next few months.
“I need to improve my fitness and speed to be able to dominate games more often,” she said.
Since finishing school at the end of 2019, Ballard has juggled full-time work with her football commitments. She is based on her family’s farm in Coomandook.
“It’s full-time so I’m working every day with mum, dad and grandpa,” she said. “We’ve got pigs and sheep, and we do a bit of cropping.”
Ballard says her family has been incredibly supportive of her football over the journey.
“Mum and dad would always spend hours taking me to football and watching me train,” Ballard said. “They’ve been a huge support and I wouldn’t be where I am without them.”
As much as Ballard loves the farm, she would have no problems moving away to make her AFLW aspirations come true.
“It would be great to stay in SA but if I could go anywhere I would take the opportunity,” she said. “Moving away to play football would be worth it.”
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