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Aussie Rules in Aussie Land

by Stephanie McKitrick

Having gone to Australia to visit friends of mine, and never having heard of Aussie Rules before, I was a little hesitant in joining a women's team. Now after having trained and played for the past 7 months I am very glad that my friend Lisa had talked me into joining with her.

I started training at the end of Jan/beginning of Feb 2006 with the Yarra Valley Cougars. To comfort me the team president, Lori, told me that it was only the second year in the league for the team and that most of the girls last year had never touched a footy before. But then to put a little pressure on to keep me wanting to play, she also informed me that out of 165 new teams in 2005, men and women, the Cougars won best new club of the AFL.

Starting training was a little scary, but thankfully all the girls were nice and happy to have an American on the team again (last year they had one from Missouri). We started where every beginner needs to start, not the rules but the basics - hand balls and kicking. Those first couple of trainings started with a warm-up group run and at least a half an hour of hand balls (both right and left handed) and short kicks (both right and left footed). Lori gave me a book of AFL rules which I maybe opened twice to find answers to questions I had, but mostly I just asked everybody else and they were more than happy to explain things to me.

We had two pre-season games. The first one was very overwhelming for me. I was a little confused because I still didn't understand most of the rules, not that I do now. Mostly I did as my coach told me since I was new to the sport - stick to your man. He put me at Half Back Flank and told me to not let her get more than two feet away and always contest the ball. Don't give her an easy mark to make an easy goal. We lost that first pre-season game but I firmly believe it was because we were still forming as a team and getting used to each other. The second game was better; I was more confident in my playing and was able to do a little more than just stick on my man. I even ran for the ball once. It made me feel powerful to have that confidence, especially after only one game.

When the season started I looked at our team and thought that we were decent but still had a lot of work to do. We won the first 4 games, building ur confidence both individually and as a team as we went along. Game 5 was against the only other team to be undefeated - Berwick - and it was a long tough game. They had home field advantage and it was a big oval. We pushed ourselves and gave them a run for their money, but sadly we lost - 6.11.47 to 2.8.20. While I was upset about the loss, I felt that it was good for morale to finally lose because that meant we wouldn't be going into any games with big egos. Plus, we were the closest scoring game for Berwick up to that point and it scared them.

As the season went on our teamwork improved tenfold but it still wasn't enough to get past the third place team, Eastern Lions, who were quickly improving as well. They gave us a good hard game in round 7. One of our players even broke her leg, but she refused to leave the game to go to the hospital until after we finished. By the fourth quarter we didn't have enough left to do any damage to Eastern, but we did keep them from getting too far away. The final score was 5.4.34 to 8.3.51.

While round 8 gave us an easy win (0.3.3 to 13.8.86) against Parkmore due to their lack of players from injuries (they had 14 all together against our 22 available) round 9 brought us against Berwick again. Still undefeated at this time for them they were ready for a good tough game. We had the home field advantage and were using it as such. The supporters were behind us all the way. We were getting our kicks straight and the ball seemed to just float right into our arms. While it wasn't enough to defeat the number one team, we again gave them their closest game - 10.6.66 to 7.10.52.

At this point in the season I had really come into my own as a player. I was no longer keeping to the mantra of stick to your player. I was running off to help out teammates and to open space up when it was needed. At the two trainings a week we had most everybody was giving me complements on how much I had improved in every aspect of the game from simple hand balls and even running to a straighter and longer kick of the ball. I was marking better and was actually able to keep up with most of the team when we did group runs and sprints. The morale of the team was wonderful which made everything seem that much better. In games we started running in packs to get the ball out quicker and we started creating space for ourselves and using it. At trainings we pushed ourselves harder each session. More running was a main focus so that we knew that when the fourth quarter comes around, we would still have the leg speed and energy to keep going and push hard.

Round 10 against South Mornington was one of the more fun games we played. Both teams were high in spirit and it showed even as the game went on and it was evident that another win was under the Cougars belts. Round 11 started off with a Breakfast for Breast Cancer prior to playing Parkmore. Sadly, they didn't have enough players show up to form a team so we had an decision to make - scratch match of 11 on 11 or a long hard training. We chose the scratch match.

Looking at how the coach set it up it almost seemed like he put his top 11 players on one team and the rest of us (not that we were bad, but there are players who are more experienced than others) on the other. Original jumpers against the more experienced inside out jumpers, who for some reason decided to call themselves The Virgins. It was a fun game and I had fun annoying the other side's wing-woman, Donna. The entire game she kept yelling at me that I was too good at sticking on my player. I just told her that's what 6 years of Basketball had taught me and she just laughed and continued to attempt to get rid of me, which she was unable to do. The Virgins won but it was all in good sport and good spirit.

The scratch match showed us what it was we needed to work on both as a team and individually. My main problem was consistency when I had control of the ball. At the beginning of the season I'd panic if I got the ball and because of that I didn't always make the brightest decisions on where to give it. But as the season went on my confidence and skill level improved and it showed both on the field and off as I became more social with my teammates.

Round 12 took us back to Berwick. Another long hard game but sadly we just didn't have the spirit this game. A disappointing loss of 4.4.28 to 9.8.62 dropped us into third place for the first time all season, and there were only two games left. Round 13 was a nice win against Surrey Park and that brought us to our competition for the final game - Eastern Lions. The game was hard and tough but in the end the Cougars proved we had what it takes to play as a team and push through all four quarters for that big W. The final score was _ to _ and put us back into second place where we belonged.

It was finally time for finals. With only 6 teams in the division the way finals worked was round 1, the Semi Finals, were Team 1 (Berwick) vs. Team 2 (Cougars) and Team 3 (Eastern Lions) vs. Team 4 (Surrey Park). The winner of the first game automatically went to the Grand Final and the loser went on to play the winner of the second game in the Preliminary Final. The winner of the Preliminary Final went on to play the winner of the first game in the Grand Final.

Both games for the Semi Finals were on the same day at the same oval. It started with Eastern against Surrey Park. Surrey tried their hardest but it wasn't enough to get past Eastern¡Çs strong back line and so Surrey was out of the competition and Eastern went on to the Preliminary Finals. Next was our game against Berwick. Berwick had a strong first quarter, getting the ball out of the center quick and moving it down the field. By the second quarter we had found our footing and started to make Berwick sweat a bit. We were working as a team and putting pressure on. By half time we weren't far behind. The second half of the game played on like the second quarter, lots of pressure but not enough. If we had played that first quarter like we did the last three, we would have beaten Berwick finally. Sadly we lost - 8.4.52 to 3.5.23.

At the end of the game I cried because sadly, it was my last. My visa for Australia was coming to its end and it was my final week to be there. In the change rooms after the game Lori presented me with a signed footy by the entire team and I cried so much I couldn¡Çt even get out a "thank you" to the team. Some nice words were said by teammates and while we lost the game it was still a good ending for me because I felt like I went out on top. Having never even heard of the game at the start of the season to going through and becoming a respected player and teammate is something that I will never forget. The skills I have learned and the friends I have made will always stick with me, even if I am thousands of miles away from them. On Thursday night's dinner after training I gave a short speech thanking everybody for the footy, all the help and acceptance and for a wonderful season and experience. Everybody told me to get back as soon as I could and that I would always have a place amongst the Yarra Valley Cougars. That Friday was my going away party. Emotions were high but so were spirits because we were celebrating both the season and my being there.

As the Cougars took the field that Sunday for the Preliminary Final against Eastern, I was taking off from the Melbourne airport, finally on my way back home after 9 months of being away. After 27 hours of flights and transit time I made it home safely and one of the first things I did was check the score for the game online. The game against Eastern was a tough one, which we knew it would be. The wind was horrible and working against us whenever it could. As the buzzer blew in the final quarter, it came down to one final kick for us. Sadly the wind took it the wrong way and we lost the game by three points - 6.6.42 to 5.9.39.

This week's game will be Berwick vs. Eastern and should be a good one as Eastern defeated Berwick the last game they played against them during the season. (Berwick won 16.9.105 to Eastern 6.5.41) The week after that is the Cougar's presentation night followed by the VWFL presentation night on the 1st of September.