New generation of AFLW draftees shows the importance of talent pathways for girls
Newly-minted Carlton draftee Maddie Prespakis has long been held up as a prototype for an emerging generation of women’s footballers.
The Gisborne product has had a so-called “uninterrupted” pathway to AFLW, having taken up Auskick when she was five. Like many of her fellow first-round picks at this year’s NAB AFL Women’s draft, however, this has not been a pathway in girls’ football, but one played primarily alongside boys.
As a junior, Prespakis was coached by her father Damien at Romsey and remained there until she was 14 and too old to continue playing with the boys.
“I thought my career would be cut short affter [playing with the] boys,” said the midfielder, after having her name read out at pick No3.
“I reflect on those days a lot… so to get this opportunity, I’ve just jumped at it with both hands as hard as I could.
“I can’t wipe the smile off my face just yet... My dream has come true. I’m so happy.”
Across the Nullabor, Fremantle’s first pick in Jasmin Stewart has a similar story to tell.
Claremont’s best and fairest in 2018, the left-footer has always been committed to Australian rules football, but played boys’ footy out of necessity until she was 14.
As a teenager, she moved to Perth in order to continue her career, and in the hope of realising a lifelong aspiration of playing for the Dockers.
“I’ve always barracked for Freo, so it’s awesome to play for them,” the former Western Australian under 18 captain said, after being the first name read out in her state.
“Mum I’m sure is crying somewhere, or screaming at work – she’s watching the draft there. She’ll be really stoked.”
Another top-10 draftee, Crow Nikki Gore’s progression to AFLW mirrors that of her peers.
The Norwood midfielder took up Australian rules football seven years ago, playing primarily with boys. As with so many girls before her, she faced an uncertain future as she reached the upper age limit of the boys’ competition. But – thanks to a pathway only recently made available to aspiring women’s footballers – she was lucky enough to smoothly transition to girls’ football as part of the NAB AFL Women’s Academy.
Established at the beginning of 2017, the Academy is a talent pathway for women and girls that last year produced 11 draftees. This year, an incredible eight of the 12 first round draftees are Academy products.
Speaking before the beginning of the first round of the draft on Tuesday, Aasta O’Connor, the AFLW’s female talent operations manager, said it was an emotional day for her and the many other coaches and mentors in the room:
“It’s graduation day after spending two years at the Academy with these women. It’s hard for us – you become so close to them all.
"My Mum says it’s payback that I’m now effectively responsible for 40 young women as teeangers. It’s great to see them develop, not only as players, but as people.”
The success of the Academy is an emerging story that underscores the importance of uninterrupted pathways to women’s elite sport, and not just through boys’ competitions. But while these pathways deserve credit for the best crop of women’s footballers yet, we are still not at a point in history where most women drafted to AFLW are lifelong footballers. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence – even amongst the first round – of more atypical pathways to the game.
Most prominently, Geelong’s first ever AFLW draftee and No1 pick, Nina Morrison, took up the game only two years ago after her Dad encouraged her to attend a talent identification program as a year 10 student.
Likewise, Brisbane’s Paige Parker took up football just three years ago, and, after trialling unsuccessfully for the Lions for two years running, made it third time lucky as the Queensland side’s first pick in this year’s draft.
Sophie van de Heuvel, Geelong’s second pick in the draft, meanwhile, is following in the footsteps of fellow dual sport stars in reigning best and fairest Emma Kearney and Jess Duffin in balancing cricket and football. She played for Victoria at last year’s under 18 nationals, and is hoping for a Big Bash contract to complement her Cats’ guernsey.
Finally, in NSW, Alyce Parker, who many spoke of as a potential No1 draft pick if clubs could draft from any state, said she chose Australian rules football over no fewer than six other sports.
“I’m very much a sporty person, but I’m primarily a swimmer. 12 months ago, I couldn’t choose one sport, I wanted to enjoy everything as much as I could.”
Tellingly, Parker credited the NSW talent pathway – and coach and GWS star Alicia Eva in particular – as having convinced her that Australian rules football would be her sport of choice.
As AFLW03 unfolds, we will no doubt see some of the best football skills yet on display thanks to the very recent inauguration of these critical pathways to the most elite competition available to women. But while we celebrate that fact, we should also remember that we are still only seeing a very small glimpse of the potential of these budding footballing stars.