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Keeping hails 'extraordinary growth'

Lucy Watkin, Carlton Media  April 26, 2017 11:45 AM

AFLW Leading Goalkicker | Darcy Vescio Watch some highlights from AFLW Leading Goalkicker award winner, Darcy Vescio.

“It’s a lockout. I’m sorry but we can’t let anymore people into the ground.”

Those immortal words, uttered by AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan, will forever be etched in the minds of the 24,568 in attendance for the first-ever AFLW match, held at Ikon Park on February 3, 2017.

It didn't matter if you watched it from the historic grandstands, one of the million people who watched the game on TV, or were one of the unfortunate people turned away at the gates of Ikon Park: that first clash between arch-rivals Carlton and Collingwood proved that AFLW was here to stay.

Damien Keeping, who holds the historic post as Carlton’s first-ever AFLW coach, remembers standing out in the middle of the ground and being awestruck by the atmosphere of that first game.

“There were people standing in stairwells and there were people trying to jump gates to get in, trying anything to get in to experience that game,” Keeping recalled.

“I was just so pleased that it was our club on show, and it was our players who got to have that experience, because that will stick with them forever.”

AFLW 2017 Rd 01 - Carlton v Collingwood
Damien Keeping stands arm-in-arm with his players ahead of the first bounce of the inaugural AFLW season. (Photo: AFL Media)

Although that opening match will never be forgotten, it’s important to acknowledge that the journey began a lot earlier for the members of Carlton’s inaugural team.

It was October, 2016 when all 27 girls chosen to represent Carlton first entered the Club, and upon arrival they were immediately bestowed the title of ‘Game Changers.’ With the benefit of hindsight, one can see that that was truly what they became. 

That first meeting was not without nerves or trepidation but was also marked by a huge sense of pride, anticipation and responsibility.

“We were really nervous bringing in 27 players who had never played together before, but right from the word 'go' we could see it coming together,” Keeping said.

“The way in which they did come together, how the girls were prepared to understand each other, work for each other, help each other, share with each other, and be vulnerable amongst their peers was exceptional. They had the preparedness to come in and accept the responsibility.”

AFLW 2017 Rd 01 - Carlton v Collingwood
The Game Changers ahead of their first match in the navy blue. (Photo: AFL Media)

From the get-go, Keeping watched his players take that title of ‘Game Changers’ and make it their own, stamping their authority on the game as both individuals and as a team. 

“There was extraordinary growth, on and off the field,” Keeping said.

“On the field it’s obvious because you get that exposed measure. Off the field they grew as individuals and as people. The preparedness to be open to learning and take responsibility held them in good stead and we’re really proud of how they did that as a group.” 

Keeping’s task of putting together the best 27 girls possible for Carlton had to be balanced by the responsibility of guiding his team through many firsts.

These women were, of course, the first-ever group to pull on the navy blue for Carlton in the first-ever AFLW competition. With that came the hype, excitement, and intense scrutiny that many had never experienced before.

KeepingParkinPic
Damien Keeping pictured with his players and Carlton coaching great David Parkin ahead of the Blues' first AFLW training session. (Photo: Graeme Furlong/Carlton Media)

“With the hype, excitement and interest that there was, we allowed the group to understand what those experiences were going to be like and allow them to take them in,” Keeping said. 

“We made sure there was a mindset where players can just go out and be who they are, express themselves and the passion they have for the game.”

 

This strategy employed by Keeping and the team around him worked, and the senior coach believes the best example of this coming to life was his team’s performance against the Magpies in Round 1.

“It was a relief, when we got there and that when we did get there we performed, and it was a big deep breath afterwards,” Keeping said.

“It was a real celebration that first night, not just of women’s footy or our club, but a celebration of all our group had achieved over pre-season. They put on a show that night and it was exceptional” 

During that first game, Keeping saw a level of freedom amongst his players, the ability to express themselves and still put on the pressure to take out a hard-fought win. However, this was something he believes his players struggled to find on a consistent basis throughout the season.

The Blues flew out of the gates at the start season taking two wins from two games. After two rounds the girls were sitting second on the ladder and were one of the favourites to go all the way.

The ensuing top-of-the-table clash away from home against Adelaide in Round 3 was Carlton’s first taste of defeat. 

“Adelaide was a real challenge, so to go over to their turf and just go down to the subsequent premiers, I thought that was a significant effort,” Keeping said. 

“We did have control of the momentum that game. There were just some tiny mistakes we made and and things going their way got them over the line, but that game showed our girls were certainly able to battle it out with the best in the comp.”

In Adelaide the girls showed they had what it took to perform, but the following week against Melbourne it was once again those tiny mistakes that saw the girls defeated for the second time.

Two away games and two losses in such a short season would usually see most teams drop their heads and their enthusiasm wane, but this wasn't the case for the Game Changers, who always believed in their abilities. 

“There wasn’t any point in time where we felt that the enthusiasm or belief within the group had dropped. It kept rising as we kept going through,” Keeping said.

“They never lost belief. They didn’t shift their focus from performing better at every opportunity regardless of what the scoreboard was saying to them.”

AFLW 2017 Rd 01 - Carlton v Collingwood 
Carlton's belief and strong team unity were trademarks of their inaugural AFLW season. (Photo: AFL Media)

And there was a turning point. The Game Changers returned to Ikon Park and played arguably the best game of footy of the entire season.

It was the level Keeping knew his team was capable of reaching, and the Bluebaggers kicked the highest score of the competition so far. More importantly, they won that crucial Round 4 clash against the Bulldogs. 

“The ball was moving up and down the ground freely, and there were 15 or 16 goals scored in a 60-minute game. That’s pretty good footy,” Keeping recalled. 

“There was good skill, structure, and accurate kicking at goal. It was high quality. I think it was a look into what the future might be and that’s pretty exciting.” 

That game against the Bulldogs was a collective effort, a game that saw multiple goals from both Bella Ayre and Darcy Vescio, silky skills from Kate Shierlaw in front of goal and another dominant performance in the backline from Bri Davey. Young guns Tilly Lucas-Rodd and Bella Ayre also earned NAB AFL Women’s Rising Star nominations. 

It was the high point for the girls, who unfortunately failed to find that winning formula again in the final two rounds of the season. An away loss to Fremantle and a hard-fought draw against Brisbane kept Carlton out of the finals race, but, overall, Keeping couldn't be prouder of his side. 

“We’re satisfied. On face value you might have a level of disappointment but when you peel it back and look at what we did achieve, and the way we achieved it, it was pretty significant,” Keeping said. 

“I think we were fatigued after such a big occasion in Round 1, but that’s part of why I’m so pleased with how we finished off.” 

“That last round against Brisbane, to play like we did, and how we came back, was a fitting way to end the season, and it matched how we started.” 

AFLW 2017 Rd 07 - Carlton v Brisbane
Carlton's AFLW players head to the boundary to thank their loyal fans after their last game of the season. (Photo: AFL Media)

Moving forward, the primary focus for Keeping and his team is the upcoming trade period and building the list. However, there has still been time for Keeping to reflect on the monumental season just gone.

“I’m so pleased that it’s this group of players, that it’s this club that is owning this space at this point in time, and I’ve been really proud to say that our whole-of-club of approach has been really genuine,” Keeping said.

“The support has been incredible and the girls have felt that. We wanted to build that environment where they felt they belonged and I’ve got no doubt that our 27 players think they belong at Carlton.”

“Even if we didn’t get that ultimate reward of winning that grand final, I think we’ve achieved a hell of a lot, and that when we do reach that high point of success we will be strong for a long period of time."

Carlton's inaugural AFLW Best and Fairest, presented by Anaconda, will be held on Thursday night.