Tonight’s AFL draft will see the dawn of dreams becoming reality for young footballers across the country.
The class of 2017 features several Eastern Football League juniors chasing the AFL dream, as 18 clubs descend on the Sydney Showgrounds to make their final selection calls.
Eastern Ranges talent manager Len Villani knows all too well of the journeys, trials and tribulations leading up to the draft, and has seen his share of gifted footballers come through the TAC Cup program over the years to take the opportunity of a lifetime.
“The greatest example is (Upper Ferntree Gully junior and 2016 Essendon recruit) Josh Begley,” Villani said.
“(Last year), he’s playing footy up the mountain and enjoying having a kick with his mates.
“How your life can take a different course in terms of getting an opportunity (and) he takes it, now he’s an AFL footballer.”
Among the young men chasing the AFL dream tonight is Adam Cerra.
Standing at 186cm tall and 85kg, Villani believes the Norwood junior to be the complete package, touting the 18-year-old as a potential top-three pick.
Off the back of an AFL Under-18 Championship carnival which saw Cerra average 18 disposals per game, along with a stand-out performance against Western Australia which netted 24 disposals, six tackles, five clearances and a goal, the midfielder will missed last month’s AFL Draft Combine testing due to injury, but is well on the radar of AFL clubs.
“I’ve been 12 years full-time at TAC Cup, he’s the most complete player I’ve seen at this level,” Villani said.
“He’ll go on to have a stellar, decorated AFL career – he is class in every aspect of the word (and) he epitomises everything that you need to be, to be an elite AFL footballer.
“His temperament, the way he goes about it, his professionalism, his physical preparation, he applies himself and he goes about it without too much fuss and gets the job done.
“Effortless through his movement, thinks his way through situations, kicks the ball really well, really strong overhead for his size, ala Jimmy Bartel.”
“We knew we had something pretty special (two years ago) and he deserves every opportunity because he’s worked very hard. I don’t think he gets past pick three.”
At a towering 203cm and 93kg, Ferntree Gully junior Sam Hayes is hard to miss.
The forward/ruck has showcased in dominant displays this season, including booting 6.1 against Gippsland Power in Round 6, on a day which saw the big-man amass 18 hit-outs.
Touted as one of the best tall prospects available, Hayes’ development in the past two-and-a-half years at the Ranges, the Rowville Sports Academy and the AFL Academy saw him named the only bottom-age member of last year’s National Under-18 Championships All-Australian side.
“He’s one of the best big men in the country,” Villani said.
“Very mobile, very good hand-eye co-ordination, he kicks the ball really well and very good below his knees for his size.
“A complete forward that kicks goals – he’s pretty dangerous when he goes forward at 203cm.
“He’s got a lot to learn still, in terms of getting around the ground but he’s had pretty big numbers all year.
“He’s a pretty exciting prospect.”
For fellow Ferntree Gully club-man Jaidyn Stephenson, (189cm, 76kg), a ‘sliding doors’ moment in this year’s AFL Under-18 Championships has seen a strong, consistent lead-up to the business-end of the year.
“He had a bit of an indifferent start to the year (but) he went over to the Vic Metro set-up and played a game against SA, had 28-odd possessions and kicked five goals from the wing – that was his ‘sliding doors’ moment,” Villani said.
“From there on, leaps and bounds, super explosive, repeat speed, very good in the air, wonderful at ground-level and has a great goal-sense.
“A match-winner with x-factor with some real flair of the way he plays his footy (and) I see him being a top-10 pick.”
Heathmont product Tom North (186cm, 87kg) has impressed throughout 2017, including a stand-out performance gathering 43 disposals (19 kicks and 24 handballs) in the Ranges’ win over the Bendigo Pioneers in May.
Like Cerra, North will missed last month’s testing due to injury.
Surprisingly overlooked for Vic Metro’s opening championships clash with Western Australia, North came back to collect 37 disposals against the Western Jets the following month to earn selection against Vic Country, where he was named in the best, followed by an appearance against the Allies.
“He’s been sensational,” Villani said.
“He’s copped a bit of feedback and home-truths as a 15-16-year-old and he’s been able to use Rowville Sports Academy and us to be able to re-shape himself and his game a little bit and give himself the opportunity to be in the mix for the national draft.
“He’s a bigger-bodied inside mid, great power, kicks both feet, hits the scoreboard as well.
“He’s got a really nice feel for the game, particularly around the stoppages – just an accumulator with a really high cruising speed.”
In true testament to North’s character, Villani believes the 18-year-old’s response to criticism two years ago has shaped him to be a promising prospect come Friday night.
“Tommy needed to work on his athletic development – he was a bit one-paced and a little bit heavy and going forward that would have stopped him a little bit,” he said.
“At the time, he missed out on Vic Metro under-16s and he was pretty disappointed having not had a setback his whole junior career.
“The way he responded was first-class and a testament to his character.
“He took the feedback on board and was able to find a bit of finesse in his game as well, lower his eyes, use his penetration with his kicking as well (and) he’s able to just round his game out.
“He’s worked really hard so hopefully he gets the reward come the 24th of November.”
If history has taught recruiters anything, it is to never write off players based on size – particularly of the smaller variety. After all, Brent Harvey is the VFL/AFL games record holder.
In just over 12 months in the TAC Cup program, Villani has seen Dylan Moore (175cm, 66kg) bring a competitive edge that sets him apart from his peers.
Despite only five TAC Cup games in 2016, Moore’s numbers at the AFL Under-18 Championships have transformed the Rowville junior into a serious draft prospect, amassing 30 possessions and a goal against Western Australia, 19 possessions and two majors against Vic Country, 20 disposals against South Australia and 22 against the Allies.
“’Moorey’ is a great example of what you need to have and what you need to bring to be able to play at AFL level,” Villani said.
“It’s an absolute misconception that goes around in local football circles – look at our list, over half is six-foot or under – it’s the old local footy world thinking we only pick tall players.
“His point of difference is his competitiveness, his effort, and his ability to gut-run – he runs elite AFL numbers now.
“He’s a beautiful kick of the footy, natural footballer and just works to get to so many contests.
“He’s out to earn his stripes – he only came in halfway through last year so he’s only been in just over 12 months in the program and he’s grabbed his opportunity and run with it.
“Every single barrier that gets put up in front of him, he just slides away. You can’t ignore kids like that.”
Much like Moore, Blackburn junior Ryley Stoddart (183cm, 73kg) has bolted into draft contention.
In his first year in the TAC Cup program, Stoddart played nine TAC Cup games and four matches for Vic Metro, with acceleration and athleticism making the defender the talk among AFL clubs for the second or third round.
“He’s sort of your (Melbourne defender) Jayden Hunt, modern-day half-back type – he’s got a real bounce and energy with athletic traits,” Villani said.
“We’re talking to AFL clubs at the moment around second and third round in the national draft which is really exciting.
“He’s still a raw talent, plays on instinct a bit and once he hones that with his craft in an AFL environment hopefully, he’ll be one very suited to the modern game.”
Speaking of the modern game, Rowville junior Trent Mynott (185cm, 73kg) boasts an arsenal of weapons best suited to today’s footy, according to Villani.
“He’s got a high ceiling,” he said.
“What he’s got that separates him from everyone else is he’s footy smart, his ability at the stoppage and by foot to see what’s happening around him – they’re attributes that are hard to teach.
“In the last three years, he’s always had the talent.
“Physically he’s just starting to mature now and he’s done a lot of work in that area.
“I think he’s one that if he gets that opportunity, he’ll continue to improve over the next three-four years at AFL level.
“In that sort of shape, he’s going to end up being a nice-sized mid.”
Rounding out the class of 2017 is Donvale’s Matthew Day (189cm, 78kg).
An invitation to last month’s AFL draft combine came unexpectedly to the strong-bodied midfielder, whose first sport had always been basketball until 18 months ago.
Representing Vic Metro and touted as one of the most talented basketballers in the state, Day’s decision to pursue his football career has since paid dividends, impressing in 15 TAC Cup games with the Oakleigh Chargers this season averaging 15 disposals, six marks and four tackles.
Day’s decision-making and ability to win the ball was on show in Round 11 when he made his senior debut for Donvale, culminating in a best-on-ground performance in his side’s 87-point win over Fairpark.
The AFL draft kicks off from 7pm tonight, while the pre-season and rookie draft will be held on November 27.