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One door closes, another one opens

THE AFLW Draft nominations were officially opened for 2020 on September 1, and one young Portlander hoping to one day nominate for the process is Elli Aitken.

This year’s AFLW Draft will take place on September 21 and while 17-year-old Aitken is still at least one year away from being eligible to be drafted, she’ll be watching on with great interest regardless.

2020’s coronavirus pandemic has thrown wrenches into the well-crafted plans of sporting organisations everywhere and AFLW and women’s football in general has been thrown into limbo.

The AFLW began in February of 2017 with eight teams and four years later has grown to 14 clubs.

One of those 14 clubs is Victorian powerhouse Richmond, who recently announced that it will not be participating in the 2020 VFLW season due to financial restraints imposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Richmond are one of the country’s most well-financed sports clubs and won’t be the only organisation to cut spending on women’s sport heading into a post-coronavirus economy.

It’s an environment of great uncertainty and much of that pressure is forwarded onto the shoulders on the next generation of emerging footballers, such as Aitken, who need to weigh up the instability of a career as a professional athlete in a new code.

It’s a challenge that Aitken – who prides herself on her organisational skills – has taken in her stride.

“Unexpected is definitely the main theme of this year,” she said.

“Trying out for Rebels (Greater Western Victoria in the NAB League), and then getting selected, it was like a new chapter of my life opening up.

“Coronavirus then shut that door pretty quickly.

“Things have changed so much just in my time playing though, I’m still optimistic and as keen as ever.

“When I first started playing as a kid (2014 with Heywood in the Portland Junior Football Association), there was nowhere to really go.

“With each passing year there’s always been another piece of the puzzle added.”

2020 was Aitken’s first year as a Rebel after injury sidelined her from trying out in 2019.

While playing in the V/Line Cup as a part of the Western Bulldogs’ Next Generation Academy, Aitken was severely concussed in a tackle and doctors advised her to take a three-month break from sport.

That break excluded her from trying out for Greater Western Victoria’s 2019 NAB League side, however in the interim she joined Portland’s under-18 and senior sides for the Deakin University Female Football League seasons.

Aitken was a star performer, co-captaining the under-18 side and playing well at the senior level, and was looking forward to a finals tilt until another injury challenge emerged – this time a broken collarbone from a game in Horsham.

Aitken had a plate and screws installed into her shoulder which were recently removed in July.

“It’s a bit of a long story, but I was concussed playing in the V/Line Cup, which meant I missed out on Rebels for the year,” she said.

“I still got to play at Portland though and had a blast, right up until the second last game of the season when I shattered my collarbone in Horsham.

“I was supposed to have my plate and screws removed in February of this year but because Rebels was going so well, we decided to put off surgery until later.

“After Rebels was called off, we decided it was a good time to get it over and done with, and now I’m feeling great.

“My rehabilitation is done in three-week blocks and I’ve got a full range of motion already, it’s going great.”

2020 cut short

This year’s NAB League under-18 girls season was cancelled on August 4 after completing three rounds of play.

Two Portlanders made the final cut – Aitken and fellow Tiger Lashay Blurton.

The early end was a frustrating outcome for the Rebels, who, after winning just two games from nine matches in 2019, were off to a flying start in 2020, defeating the Western Jets and Sandringham Dragons in an undefeated start to the campaign.

Aitken was named as an emergency for the round three win against Sandringham and said she was disappointed to not get the chance to debut.

“It was really frustrating to have the season called off because things were going so well for us,” she said.

“We only got through three rounds and I was an emergency for that final game and at that time, my coach told me to expect a game soon because they liked what they saw with me, and that the season was about seeing what everyone is made of.

“After the season was called off I caught up my coach again on Zoom and I was really happy with the feedback I got.

“The main message was just to make sure I keep up my fitness and keep my skills sharp because preseason will be here again before we know it.

“The saddest part really though is just not getting to play more as a group. All the girls had already bonded together really well.

“That’s why I’m glad they’re changing the age ranges next year (NAB League under-18s will become under-19s, under-16s will become under-17s).

“It’s just not really fair to be a part of the system and not get the chance to show what you’re capable of, so I’m glad everyone will get the chance to go again next year.

“Hopefully we can get that same group of girls together playing and training together and take that connection and bond up even higher.”

Back to school

If Aitken is selected for the Rebels again in 2021 she’ll be a bottom-aged under-19 player.

Playing within the NAB League while also going through VCE is a unique challenge, mostly due to the three-hour separation between Aitken’s family home in Narrawong and her club in Ballarat.

With a keen eye for organising and planning however Aitken said she was comfortable with the challenge.

“Portland Secondary College has been really supportive and we’re already working on plans for next year if I need to train three hours away from home,” she said.

“We found that this year, the day after training I was always dead tired. We wouldn’t get home until 11pm or whatever which was past my usual bedtime, and I would really struggle at school the next day.

“All of my teachers were really understanding though which I really appreciated.

“After school I’m planning on studying physiotherapy and if that doesn’t work out, maybe sports science.

“Whatever I end up doing though I want to keep playing footy, and I’d encourage anyone who thinks they might be interested to give it a go. “You’ll never know until you give it a go, and I’m glad I did.”

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